Aug. 26, 2003
The familiar butterflies in Jim Bletner's stomach have returned.
As Tennessee's Aug. 30 season opener with Fresno State draws near, the hours at the office grow longer and the nights grow shorter. Bletner nervously scours last season's statistics, searching for tendencies. He meets with his assistants, then formulates strategies, all the while knowing that just moments after kickoff, his game plan may have to be scrapped.
"You have to think on your feet, adjust, make decisions and move on," said Bletner, the Vols' longtime director of concessions and souvenirs. A simple title for the Herculean task of feeding Volunteer Nation at Neyland Stadium.
Don't forget the mustard
With a population in excess of 104,000, Neylandville will become the fifth-largest city in Tennessee for some three hours on seven Saturdays this fall. Depending on their mood--which is closely tied to the Vols' performance on the field and the weather--UT backers each week will typically devour more than 25,000 hot dogs, 3,500 sausages, 3,000 chicken sandwiches and 3,000 pizzas, all washed down with 100,000 soft drinks.
A balmy afternoon and a few first-half Casey Clausen TD passes could send those numbers skyward.
"A lot depends on how the team did the previous week and the record," Bletner said. "If the fans come in to the stadium mad, they don't buy as well. And if the team is behind at halftime, they don't buy as well. All they want to do is talk."
Likewise, steamy temperatures or heavy showers can have a big impact.
"The general rule of thumb is the hotter it is, the less fans eat," Bletner said.
Game time is another key variable.
"With night games, people have either tailgated early or they plan to go out and eat after the game," Bletner said. "We don't sell as many drinks and they tend to eat less."
A hot afternoon requires as much as 200,000 pounds of ice cubes. Bletner, who scrutinizes weather forecasts as warily as a hot-air balloon pilot, is predicting moderate temperatures for the Aug. 30 contest. But he wearily recalls another afternoon home opener against UCLA in 1991 when temperatures neared triple digits.
"That's the closest we've ever come to a disaster with ice," Bletner said. "We couldn't keep up. We sold 200,000 cups."
Some 1,500 game-day employees, including 500 hawkers who roam the stands, go through extensive training sessions. The kitchen staff has the ovens in action by 5 a.m. on game day, and Bletner is typically at the stadium by 6 a.m. He'll often still be on duty five hours after the game ends, then is back in the office on Sunday, evaluating the previous day's performance and making strategic adjustments for the next game, knowing that no amount of preparation is ever enough.
"Even things you've double-checked go badly," he said. "One game, three kitchen ovens didn't work. All had been double-checked the day before and were working fine."
Yet meeting such challenges gets Bletner's heart pumping like that of a tailback on an 80-yard touchdown run.
"A lot of ex-athletes manage our stands," Bletner said. "You sort of get an adrenaline rush from it. I think it's the same kind of rush you get when you're a player."
Bletner recalls asking another university's concessions director, a retired military officer, why he took such a demanding job.
"Well, I tell you what," he said. "It's the closest thing to combat I could find."