Tailgating not so much just scraping by these days
Beyond the pyramids of beer cans and crumpled potato chip bags, some Pirates patrons are banding together for a classier, pre-game dining experience.
“It's a nice change of pace,” says Atria's chef Josh Hatajik, unfolding a pair of pressed white tablecloths beneath an overpass near PNC Park. “We get to get out and meet people and enjoy the excitement from the team. I love catering, so this was right up my alley.”
Hatajik had donned his first apron at 8 a.m. to prepare a feast of classic tailgate fare — burgers, beef dogs, pierogies, beans and BBQ — before hauling a grill and the grub nine miles down the Allegheny River for a throng of hungry Alcoa employees.
“I mean, I like my job in the restaurant,” says server Ryan Ewing, “but it's way better down here.”
Bill Blefere of Italian Specialty & Gourmet Catering, in Brookline, manages events for a few thousand people per day.
“Lots of tailgate parties — the Pirates, for Pitt, the Grand Prix the other day — we handle anywhere from 10 to 5,000 people per event,”he says.
As the Pirates edge closer to a pennant race, Blefere says the escalated fandom is “a caterer's nightmare” when it comes to outdoor entertaining.
“We're in Pittsburgh, so right now, it's dark and stormy. Later, we'll get sun and heat,” he says. “We don't even like to go down (to PNC Park) unless we get tents or the company puts us under a bridge.”
Catered tailgating takes planning, Blefere says.
“You can't just run down there,” he says. “You have to buy at least five parking spaces, usually more, and it's almost always on a weekday. We can put something together for 2,000 people by tomorrow if we really need to. But if the Pirates make the playoffs, expect total hysteria.”
Veteran tailgater Brian Butler of Upper St. Clair put together PNC Bank's latest team-building event. Clutching a color-coded, itemized spreadsheet, the tech project manager accounted for every penny of his $500 budget, opting to build his own versions of horseshoes and cornhole games to accompany three tables of homemade cocktails and cuisine.
“I don't mind doing this kind of stuff,” he says. “We want to get everyone together, get them talking, and it's easy to get everything together.”
Beside him, partner-in-crime Todd Simmons, PNC developer lead, shook his head.
“No, he just makes it look easy,” Simmons says of Butler. “You should've seen the surveys he made — all pirate-themed — with lots of ‘mateys' and ‘arghhs.' ”
Jim O'Connell, owner of Jimmy's Corporate Catering, Downtown, says he always gets more calls for Pirates games than for other black-and-gold pre-game events.
“People are so set in their ways for Steelers games,” he says. “They go to the same spot. Eat the same food. But with the Pirates, the superstitions are still catching on.
Like a lot of regional caterers, O'Connell says Jimmy's probably does five or six games a year, plus food drop-offs for corporate groups before they commute to PNC Park.
“If the Pirates keep winning, it could get bigger,” he says. “I have friends who really believe if they eat a certain food, the Steelers will win. People are crazy.”
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.