Dogged love of food

RiverDogs’ food wizard John Schumacher is ready to play baseball with his latest creation, a Pig-on-a-Stick.

It's one of the wackiest of John Schumacher's ideas, but somehow it caught on: The Pickle Dog. Two pickle halves hollowed with a melon baller like a dugout canoe, serving as the "bun" for a hot dog and coleslaw.

The signature dog's debut at The Joe last year went like gangbusters, so it's back in the lineup again for $3.50 "It was one of those things like, 'I'll try it if you try it,' " he says.

This old -- make that veteran -- RiverDog is always up to new tricks. "Schu" is the regional food and beverage director for the Goldklang Group, which owns the Charleston RiverDogs as well as three other minor league baseball teams: the Fort Myers Miracle, Hudson Valley Renegades and St. Paul Saints.

He's sort of a madcap scientist of ballpark food, culling ideas from state fairs, street food and other sports stadiums. Come Friday, he'll reveal his latest inventions when the RiverDogs open the 2011 season at The Joe.

For one, he's unleashing the brand-new Pig-on-a-Stick, a $5 foot-long corn dog wrapped in thick-cut hickory bacon.

It's got the salty-sweet marriage while tapping into national bacon mania at the same time.

All the makings of a grand food slam, at least at The Joe.

Because, according to Schumacher, corn dogs are king in Charleston.

At the other stadiums, "they are nowhere close to the popularity here."

Also new on the menu are Monster Pimento Pickle Burger ($8), Bologna Sliders ($1.50 each) and a cross between a Philly cheesesteak and bratwurst, the Brat Cheese Steak ($8).

Schumacher has birthed a new "Nacho House" whose offerings include the comeback Facebook BBQ Nachos ($6).

Huh?

"A few years ago we tried barbecue nachos with shredded pork, barbecue sauce and cheese on top. It wasn't selling very well and so we took it off at the end of the 2009 season," Schumacher explains.

Well, some fans weren't happy and started a bring-back-the-nachos campaign.

"We chuckled but decided to let it fester for awhile through two home stands, then brought it back and called it the Facebook BBQ Nachos." That was the inspiration for the new Nacho House, Schumacher says.

All told, Schumacher plans eight to 10 new additions this year to the 75-item menu. Those include "signature" hot dogs, since wieners always are the best-selling chow -- about 100,000 a year at The Joe.

Schumacher likes to take risks, but some dogs make it and some don't. One that didn't was the Bean Dog with spicy mustard, baked beans and onions.

Then there was the Asian Invasion dog with wasabi, crispy Chinese noodles and soy sauce. "Rrrrrrrrrrr," rumbles Schumacher, pointing his thumbs down.

On the other hand, the hit dog is the namesake RiverDog ($3.50), slathered with mustard-based barbecue sauce and coleslaw. The crowning touch is two spears of pickled okra "that give it some snap," he says.

Food revolutionary

Schumacher, 49, started getting seriously imaginative with hot dogs in 2004, trying to dream up new ones that would be unique to a particular stadium and reflect regional tastes and flavors. He expanded the concept to include other novelty foods.

"We have boiled peanuts here. They would shoot us if we sold them anywhere else. We have cheese curds in St. Paul. They outsell the hot dogs."

He's not sure he was absolutely the first person to do it, but he definitely was a pioneer.

"Everybody was going the safe route. Some started dabbling in it but were hedging their bets. Now it's exploded. The Dodgers have the Dodger Dog. They serve sushi at the Giants stadium.

"I felt the whole industry, everybody was missing the point. Baseball is the only sport where food is so intrinsically tied to the game. As soon as you think baseball, you say, 'Let's go get a hot dog and Cracker Jacks.' "

RiverDogs President and marketing guru Mike Veeck says Schumacher "absolutely" revolutionized baseball eats here and across the country.

"We never knew how to do it right until John pulled it together. ... It's really been an amazing thing to watch. He's set himself as the target for all the clubs. It's a bad year if we don't get some famous TV people to check on what John is doing."

While most baseball stadiums had a signature item or two, "nobody had 10 of them," says Veeck. "What John started was the idea you could actually create menus."

Dream job

Schumacher has spent his whole professional life in food. His first job at age 15 was in a Hardee's. He's been a dishwasher, cook, bartender and kitchen manager. He has worked at pizza places, wing joints, a Marriott and was on the traveling team for Joe's Crab House, going city to city to open new restaurants.

He took a job as director of food for Charleston County Parks because he had never worked concessions before. "It piqued my interest because it is so closely associated with street food," he says.

In 2000, he spotted an ad in the newspaper for a food and beverage director of the RiverDogs. The general manager at the time promised him a lot of work for little pay. Schumacher jumped at the chance.

Four years into the job, the creative menu push grew out of a casual beer and brainstorming session. "We went to the grocery store and bought 30 condiments and started mixing and matching," says Schumacher.

Now he finds sources of inspiration all over the country. State fairs, "without a doubt." He is fascinated by street food and food trucks.

He also visits other sporting events and arenas. "I walk the concessions, look at the menu, take pictures. In other words, beg, borrow and steal."

He even strolls farmers markets looking for a muse.

Will locally sourced food be on the menu soon? Not yet, he says, but it will.

"We're playing with kettle corn, experimenting with adding color and spices to tailor it to each team."

He is tweaking another idea for a kicked-up grilled cheese with different cheeses, meats and produce. "Do you know you can mix and match cheeses with jellies?" he asks.

Schumacher says that reinventing baseball food has created the mindset "that when you go to the stadium, you have to eat this."

Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at 937-4886.