Rule one: Read the crowd. Rule two: When in doubt, choose hot dogs. That’s the gospel for the “hawkers” at RFK Stadium, the men and women who troll through the stands selling the staples of the ballpark experience: beer, hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jack.
Each night the vendors choose what they’ll be selling for that game, with the top sellers from the last home stand getting first pick. Predicting what the crowd will want can mean the difference between a good night and selling pretzels for the rest of the year.
“People don’t seem to buy a lot of pretzels,” says Clarence Rucker. He’s been working the crowd at RFK for 28 years, mostly between shifts as a DC firefighter.
Hawkers work on commission. Their cut is based on the number of units they sell, usually between 12 and 15 percent, and it also determines their priority in choosing what they’ll be selling in the future. Performance is measured over the course of a home stand, as Rucker explains it, and resets to zero each time the Nationals get back in town.
There are about 60 hawkers at each game, according to Dave Freireich, a spokesman for Aramark, which handles all food at RFK. Rucker says $150 is a good take for a single game, though it’s possible to make more.
When he arrives at the stadium before a game, Rucker first tries to get a measure of the crowd’s appetite, based on the time of day, the weather, and the opposing team.
“If it’s real hot out, I’m definitely selling water,” he says. “But with hot dogs you can’t go wrong. Everyone comes to the baseball park to get a hot dog.”
After beverages, peanuts and Cracker Jack are also regular top sellers, a fact Rucker attributes to their canonization in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” But a full load of either is only 18 units, compared with 24 for beverages and hot dogs—a rookie mistake Rucker isn’t about to make, as fewer units mean more trips back for replenishment.
Many days Rucker canvases the entire stadium—and his voice travels even farther. When his mother came to a game he was working, she commented to his wife: “I can’t see him, but I can hear him.”
Totals sold annually at RFK: 40,000 hot dogs and 7,500 boxes of Cracker Jack.