Last weekend, MLB London hosted its second major event of 2019, the MLB Foodfest at Hawker House near Canada Wharf in southeast London. MLB’s EMEA office had the daunting task of creating an event that appealed to diehard baseball fans while also enticing young, hip Londoners. These NGFs—or “New Gen Fans”—are the raison d’etre for the new MLB London and key, MLB quite rightly believes, to the expansion of the MLB property in Europe. With an audience of two mostly unrelated groups, MLB succeeded with FoodFest, which turned out to be both cool and sporty.
We arrived a little before the launch of the second Saturday session, which began at 6 p.m. There was nothing on the way from the station to suggest that a large MLB event was taking place nearby, but at the intersection closest to Hawker House, a large sign assured fans they were nearly there.
Upon turning a corner into the entrance, there was an uninterrupted view of the entry plaza, which would not have looked out of place at any MLB stadium or events centre. A repurposed storage container served as the ticket booth, with a ‘scoreboard’ above that said “Get in the Game” and listed the Foodfest ‘lineup’ of food from around MLB. The black, white, and teal theme was much more suggestive of events like London Yards and MLB Battlegrounds than the London Series itself.
One entered between two signs that read “The pint of no return” and “Step up to the plate”, with “Let’s be frank, you need a hot dog” nearby. Inside, a central courtyard contained a number of open fires in old oil barrels, with a central fireplace/repurposed factory chimney and plenty of long benches. Around the outside were a number of different bars and seating areas, some imaginatively placed in enormous thatched enclosures with steeply pitched roofs.
The interior was divided into two different areas. On the left were a pair of batting cages, with a pitching tunnel a level above, and a bar and the Mariners’ vegan food stand behind, at which there was a fairly constant queue. When we entered before opening time, it was predictably quite empty, but as the night went on, the queues to enter the two areas were substantial, though they moved quickly thanks to a 10-ball maximum in the cage and six-ish in the tunnel.
In a larger room on the left was the food hall, with almost a dozen kiosks representing various ballparks, plus a ball pit at which diving catches for balls could be attempted. The selection of teams including the 2019 and 2020 London Series participants, plus other popular clubs like the Dodgers. Several unique dishes were featured as well, including the Astros’ Frito Pie Corndog, with a Frito-battered hot dog, and the Diamondbacks’ Churro Dog, or brioche with churro and ice cream.
Every stand served a single item, all of which cost five pounds. The variety of bars scattered around the place had a good and reasonably priced selection of beers, including a Goose Island pale ale and IPA, plus wine and mixed drinks. There was even a dedicated gin bar and the VIP balcony had its own separate bar, while a deejay mixed crowd-pumping classics and current pop hits with edgier new tracks.
There was no mention of the past or upcoming London Series, nor was there merchandise from either event. Hoodies, t-shirts, and hats with the FoodFest logo were displayed at a shop in the food hall, which also sold a limited selection of MLB gear. MLB London representatives told us that this was viewed as a separate event to the Series, with its location at Hawker House aimed at attracting a crowd who regularly attend other food festivals at the location.
The venue remained busy throughout the evening, with the fan experience areas, the food hall, and the plaza all busy from around seven o’clock onward. A quick scan around social media during the week before indicated there were a large number of free tickets available, while they were also available for purchase online and at the door for eight pounds (worth it for the unlimited batting practice alone!).
Judging by the mixture of baseball jerseys (including everything from a Mark McGwire Athletics jersey to a Jarred Cosart Astros’ uniform) and those dressed stylishly for a night out, the London office succeeded in its objective. It was enjoyable to see “McGwire” celebrating his mid-50s fastball (the high mark for Saturday was 74 when we checked around halfway through), but just as entertaining to see a group of early twenty-somethings decked out in the latest expensive streetwear and laughing at each other’s attempt to even throw a strike.
If the event returns, one can only hope that it receives more visibility in London and the UK and advertisement more than a week in advance. It would be great to also see children in attendance from local Fun At Bat schools, which MLB, USA Baseball, and BaseballSoftballUK launched just before the London Series. Although FoodFest was clearly directed at 18-25s, it would have been a memorable experience for children.
MLB aimed high in hosting an event that was meant to draw in non-baseball fans for the atmosphere while still appealing to the passionate UK baseball community. Watching the jersey-clad fans enjoy stations similar to Play Ball Park at the London Series, the happy hum of a busy food hall, and well-dressed couples all enjoying the same excitingly designed, sleek event suggests MLB succeeded in its objective. With the playful welcome area, large plaza, and sizeable indoor space, FoodFest felt like a proper MLB event in the U.S.