It’s not a RiverDogs game without a bag of Tony’s boiled peanuts and a $1 beer, just like it’s not a South Carolina football game without a tailgate in the parking lot beforehand.
Pandemic-era sports have had to adjust this year, and while fans are back in football stadium stands with a limited capacity this season, tailgating is off the table.
With no pre-game cornhole competitions, fresh burgers on the Foreman and ice luge Fireball shots (not speaking from experience here…), all the action will have to take place on the field this season. Food options on the concourse are limited, too, so don’t get your hopes up for the same expansive fare you’re used to snacking on throughout the game.
At Death Valley in Clemson, fans won’t be warming up with hot meals as the temperatures drop for fall games; it’s pre-packaged dining and concession stand basics only for now. At Williams-Brice at the University of South Carolina, you can purchase a fresh hot dog, but you can’t pump your own condiments, settling for some miniature packets instead to squeeze one at a time on your French fries.
For some local vendors used to serving up specialized treats at sporting events, football season is another reminder of the pandemic’s losses. Many will not be back this season, due to stadium restrictions. Others that are back are desperate for sales but won’t come close to hitting the benchmarks of last season, when stadiums were operating at full capacity.
Attendees at Death Valley and Williams-Brice cap at 19,000 out of 81,500 seats and 20,000 out of 80,250 seats, respectively.
Wainini Shave Ice in Easley is the only local vendor returning this season to Death Valley, and the lowering temperatures already aren’t boding well for the company that depends on Clemson events for at least half of its revenue.
At the first game of the season, owner Amy Smith said sales were down because of the unseasonably cool weather and limited capacity.
“It was by far not our best game but also not our worst,” said Smith, who struggled to find outdoor spaces at which to serve up her snow cones this summer. “It’s still worth it to do anything. We’ll try anything right now.”
Smith said she needs a really strong football turnout the rest of the year and a normal spring baseball season to be able to keep her business afloat.
At Williams-Brice, Carolina Kernels Popcorn will be back serving specialty gourmet flavors like green apple, toffee, dill pickle and buffalo blue cheese.
Owner Tamala Lathan said she doesn’t think she’ll be able to make up lost baseball season revenue during football season, but the exposure to potential customers who can visit the brick-and-mortar shop is worth the vending experience.
“We’re missing out on brisket hot dogs and that kind of stuff this year,” Clemson University Associate Athletic Director Jeff Kallin said of a unique local take on a traditional sports food classic that typically graces Death Valley’s concourse. “The last few years, we had been working to increase our food choices, something you do when you become more of a destination.”
Instead, this year, the stadium has scaled back to basics for safety reasons.
Aramark, Clemson and the University of South Carolina’s campus meal provider, will be tending to the salted pretzels, popcorn and boxed candy per usual, but additional local vendors that fill up the concourse will be limited.
Operating with a few more vendors in the concourse than Death Valley, Williams-Brice has been able to offer more options. Chick-fil-A, Thai Kingdom, Soca Caribbean Kitchen, Doc’s Barbeque, The Nutty Bavarian and Dippin’ Dots will be back, and hot foods, such as hamburgers and hot dogs, are being served from concessions stands.
It’s also the first year beer will be for sale at the Columbia stadium. Most is domestic, according to Senior Associate Athletic Director Eric Nichols, but River Rat Brewery is a sponsor and will be on tap.
Even so, the fan experience on the concourse will be vastly different for those who aren’t shelling out the money for private club seating, a trendy option this season as attendees look for ways to distance from crowds and athletic departments look for ways to make up money lost from limited ticket sales.
Plans to enact new safety requirements in the stadiums had to be submitted to and approved by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and S.C. Department of Commerce, per Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive order for events during COVID-19. A part of those plans was concessions operations.
Concourse safety measures, which differ at each stadium, include register spacing, line spacing marked by floor icons, grab-and-go stations, cashless payments and worker requirements to wear masks, face shields and gloves while serving food. Rows of sanitizer stations stand like linebackers ready for the snap.
For the hundreds of businesses that operate outside of stadiums in college towns, concerns go far beyond a comfortable fan experience. At this point, it’s a question of keeping the lights on.
’55 Exchange, an ice cream and retail store operated by Clemson University, isn’t allowed by the college to open on game days right now in order to limit crowds. That impacts 20 percent of revenue generated on home game weekends in a given year, said faculty advisor John McGregor. That revenue typically supports 15 to 20 student employees and three professional mentoring staff members.
“Many retailers that are tied to live sporting events have been hanging on just to make it to the sports season, but I am afraid that most are going to find out the harsh reality that the numbers are just not going to be there to keep them in business,” said McGregor.
College town businesses are still hoping for those game weekend boosts, with more football to be played this season. They’re crossing their fingers for a 10-yard pass instead of a punt on fourth down.