Hattie’s Chicken Shack, owned and operated by Jasper and Beth Alexander, has operated out of Saratoga Race Course for the last four years. The stand was originally located in “Restaurant Row,” before relocating to a more prominent spot in the backyard area for the last two seasons. According to Beth, Hattie’s has been asked to relocate to a spot located beneath the Carousel at the last minute, a variable black hole of a location which sold crepes as recently as last season.
“I’ve lived here almost my whole life and I’ve operated out of the track for four years – I never even knew there was a place that sold crepes,” quipped Alexander.
She says the decision to once again try and move the popular chicken stand came from the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the track’s contracted food service provider, Centerplate. The catering company staffs the majority of the concession and alcohol stands throughout the race course, as well as handling the fine dining options available trackside.
“The problem is [Centerplate] was supposed to contact us months ago, and nobody did,” said Alexander. “We kind of had the rug pulled out from under us three weeks before the meet is scheduled to begin. We’ve hired chefs and have staff members that come back every year.”
This affects not only Hattie’s, their loyal customers and their potential employees, but local poultry providers that the restaurant makes a point of working with.
“The big thing is we use all local purveyors for our chicken, and we’re in the process of signing a contract with them. Obviously, that’s a good account to have; we go through a lot of chicken. It’s very discouraging.”
The restaurateur believes Centerplate was more concerned with increasing their direct profits with a more prominent location for a Centerplate-owned stand than facilitating one of their most popular vendors. Not counting alcohol sales, Alexander says Hattie’s rivaled only Shake Shack as one of the most popular vendors from the 2011 season.
“Centerplate saw all these lines and decided they should have that spot for themselves so that they can have all the money,” said Alexander. “What they do not understand is people were standing in line for Hattie’s fried chicken and Hattie’s fried chicken sandwiches. No one is going to stand in line for a Centerplate hot dog.”
Centerplate and NYRA currently take about 35 percent of the total sales from Hattie’s and all other vendors located within the Saratoga Race Course. Hattie’s would be responsible for retrofitting the new space, which Alexander estimated to be anywhere from five to ten thousand dollars. The added cost of new fryers, gas lines and extra equipment would ultimately mean the stand would operate at a loss – which is something they’ve no interest in doing.
The Alexanders took their plight to Facebook, posting a picture of the location and asking whether anyone knew where it was. Their answer was a resounding “no,” with most commenters puzzled the venue even sold crepes to begin with. As expected, the response from their customers has been overwhelmingly supportive of the restaurant while condemning NYRA and Centerplate, as one commenter stated “they shouldn’t be treating a Saratoga institution like this.”
Alexander also said she wouldn’t be surprised if “Restaurant Row” is completely gone after the 2012 season.
“Centerplate just wants to do all the food themselves and I don’t think they care what they are offering to Saratoga.”
It’s easy to see why Centerplate would want to mess with the successful formula when you consider the remote location their attempting to fill. The logic is similar to a television network moving a popular show to Friday evening, a notoriously dead night in the Nielsen ratings. The thinking could be if Hattie’s really is that popular, their customers would follow. Centerplate did not respond to inquiries as of press time.
Alexander added that there are still a few phone calls to NYRA and Centerplate they’re hoping to make in an effort to appeal the decision, but she admits the outlook isn’t particularly great. The added hurdle of this decision seemingly made at the last minute has only exacerbated Alexander’s frustration. She feels their presence at the track is a small part of what makes the race course so special, but gets the sense they aren’t wanted their anymore.
“It just feels like we keep getting pushed out; that’s basically it,” said Alexander. “I’m very disheartened by the whole thing, and quite frankly disgusted.”