In a very poorly air-conditioned classroom at The Citadel, RiverDogs' president and Citadel professor Mike Veeck displays the latest issue of The Charleston City Paper to the graduate students in his Art of Sales class. On the cover is the latest concession stand high jinx to come out of the minor league team’s kitchen: The PB&J Jalapeño Burger.
“Two-thousand words of free advertising,” he tells the class. “For a burger that no one has even eaten yet. How do you do that?” he asks, and for a moment it is hard for the students decipher whether or not he is being rhetorical or if Veeck expects an explanation. “I’ll tell you,” he reassures them, “You hire a genius.”
From foodie experts to the casual ballpark fan, that is exactly what John Schumacher is known as—a genius. If you powered through a Homewrecker Hotdog or gulped down a beer milkshake this past season at The Joe then you know John’s handy work, but this past Friday I took a seat in a very sufficiently air-conditioned RiverDogs luxury box to learn more about the man behind the menu.
He doesn’t only want to talk about food. His latest idea is to register Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park on a project called Little Free Library, where people donate books that are stowed in large birdhouse structures for others to read and return.
HG: How often do you chip in ideas that aren’t food related?
JS: All the time. It’s part of the process, something that keeps my sanity in check. You have to do those other creative things otherwise you’ll go crazy, or well crazier, depending on who you are.
HG: Do you remember your first food experiment?
JS: It was back in 2004. There was this sense that baseball was missing the boat, food and beverage-wise: it was just an amenity no one was paying attention to. I decided to theme all our stands and concentrate on a specific kind of food at each stand. One thing I said was that we needed to have a signature hotdog for each stand, regardless of what the theme is. So me and the food and beverage director went to the grocery store, and we must have bought 40 condiments. We went back to his house with a 12-pack of beer, ate a bunch of hotdogs, and started experimenting with all the different toppings. That’s when we came up with the River Dog and the Old Smokey, which have been here for 10 years now.
HG: At what point did you realize you were on to something?
JS: Charleston’s a foodie town, so they’re a little more adventurous here. We got good feedback. Then the next thing becomes what have you done for me lately? Once you go out, you can’t come back! That door is closed.
HG: The next big thing.
JS: Or attempt to, there’s no guarantees.
HG: I know you start with a big test menu for the season. What’s the process like for whittling that down?
JS: There’s no stopping or starting point, it’s a year-round process. I have a little tool bag in my office and whenever we see an article or something on a restaurant menu, or just think of something off the top of our heads, it goes in the bag. It’s thicker than the Koran; there are thousands of ideas in there. We usually start really experimenting in January. We sit down and look at our numbers and our history to see what did well and what didn’t. Then we take a trip to Cisco in Columbia and they have a separate test kitchen just for us. By the time we get there we usually have about a half-dozen ideas that we’re kicking around. That’s when we start narrowing it down.
HG: Is there an idea in the tool bag that you really want to get to, but haven’t yet?
JS: A couple things—quite a few actually, but you can’t do them all. We probably already have three or four that we’re looking into for next year.
HG: Can you preview one of them?
JS: There are a couple of things we’re kicking around. We have a trailer cooker that we’re going to convert and maybe make a BBQ pit and start smoking some things.
HG: Abnormal things?
JS: Ha, possibly. Guinea pigs are on the list. We’re going to try some new shakes, too, but not beer—that’s as much as I can give you, though. One thing we did this past year that we’re going to do more of next season is the herb garden. It’s been really well received. It makes you feel good, too, whenever you see someone getting their tacos and they stop by the herb garden and sprinkle some on. We’re going to tailor our herb gardens to each concession stand. For pizza we’ll have oregano and basil, others will have chives, green onions, maybe get some peppers out there. Beer shakes make you smile on the outside when you think of it and kick it off, but the herb garden makes you smile on the inside.
HG: At what point did you decide, Food. This is what I’m going to do?
JS: I started off in food when I was in high school as a dishwasher.
HG: A luxurious job.
JS: Actually a dishwasher and a host are the two most important jobs in a restaurant and they get the least amount of glory. A dishwasher touches every person that comes through the restaurant, every piece of china and all the glassware. If they’re not doing their job it’s going to ruin the experience. The host is the first person a guest sees walking in and if your host has a terrible attitude then you’ve already made up your mind.
HG: Wow, very true.
JS: But I worked in fast food, corporate, a Marriott, Landry’s Seafood, Joe’s Crab Shack, all that while I was in school. I graduated from college with a degree in Political Science but I didn’t want to be in the real world yet, so the next best thing was graduate school. I got a Master in Criminal Justice. I love research and that’s why I was attracted to it. When I left graduate school, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do and I had spent so much time in food and beverage already—blood, sweat, and tears—and I loved it. I had my sheep’s skin with the Master Degree, but I knew I was more attracted to this. You’re lucky when you know what your passion is.
HG: That’s something that I am just now starting to more fully recognize: no one’s passion is any more or less important than someone else’s.
JS: It’s all unique and individual. My father passed away this year in April and whenever you have to deal with life-altering events you take stock of things. Recently I took a trip just for myself and ended up flying to Wisconsin to the National Mustard Museum on National Mustard Day—which of course, there is one, and just had a blast. I went to San Diego to see a friend and went to a concert of a band that I’ve wanted to see for 10 years but just haven’t caught. On the way back, flying over Colorado, I had this epiphany that there’s other things that you want to do, like right now I’m working on a personal manifesto. It’s pretty intense just two or three weeks into the process. It makes you look inside and find out what’s most important—and everyone has parts of that reflection which aren’t necessary good—but you have to come face to face with it if you want to be honest with yourself. We’ll see what comes out the other end. It may not be pretty!
HG: Yeah, but that’s part of it.
JS: And it’s mine. That’s all I can control right now—or attempt to.
HG: That’s a big thing to sift through, to ask yourself what is truly valuable to you. When you ask yourself that question you end up learning a lot about yourself, and maybe it’s not always pretty.
JS: Yeah, and that’s okay. Part of it is being able to understand that everyone is going through the human experience and everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are fine. You have to be okay with making mistakes. Taking risks, that’s how you learn.
HG: I don’t know if this a question you get a lot or not, but if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
JS: Oh, no. It’d be tough. One question I used to ask friends, family, even total strangers was if you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, what would you eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? It tells you more about that person than you would think. So this question reminds me of that, but it is almost impossible to answer. It’s like asking someone, “What’s your favorite song?”
HG: Oh, you’re right! It’s a cruel question. I realize that now.
JS: You shift, you know? Right now I’ve been eating a ton of avocados. They’re nature’s butter. I have at least one a day, some times more. When I’m out in the heat working ten, twelve hours a day I’m just snacking, and you want something light. But if I had to answer your question, it would probably be seafood. It’s hard to narrow seafood down, because I love them all.
HG: If you’re craving seafood, there’s no substitute. You have to have it.
JS: Yeah, but if you asked me again tomorrow, I might tell you something else. Food, it’s like air. Air with flavor. Everyone has to have it.
The RiverDogs return to The Joe August 30 & 31 for the last two home games of the season. While there, you can try John’s latest experiment: an Oatmeal Cookie Beershake. You’ll probably love it, but you may not. That’s because some times John Schumacher makes mistakes. He takes risks. That’s what makes his food—our beloved flavored air—so fun.