BY CAROLYN LaWELL
JACKSON, Tennessee | Kurt Brown has entertained crowds since his grandfather drove him to town, stood his 3-year-old frame on a corn stack in front of stores and told him to sing. He crooned old country songs, just what the farmers visiting Gibson, Tennessee – population less than 400 – wanted to hear. They would toss him a quarter, or maybe a dollar.
The first song he learned was George Jones’ He Stopped Loving Her Today. He added more songs to his repertoire, performing in high school musicals and, for the past seven years, with Southern Rain, a southern rock and old country band named for a Mel Tillis song.
He worked on his voice by impersonating greats like Jones, who he has seen in concert 21 times, Merle Haggard and Al Green. The easy part has always been entertaining crowds and talking with people.
Who wants a hot dog? Not Kurt Brown
Naturally, the last hot dog Kurt Brown ate was at Pringles Park. That was six years ago.
Brown scooped ice cream the first summer he worked for the Jackson Generals. After bending down again and again to scoop chocolate and vanilla and moose tracks – the most popular flavor the team sells – it took him a while to enjoy the sight and taste of ice cream again.
The next food his taste buds despised was the hot dog. He has just seen too many as the Generals concessions and catering manager.
“The first few years, I thought maybe I’ll go in and eat one,” he says. “But then in 2009, we started our $1 night promotion.”
That meant $1 popcorn, $1 soda, $1 draft beer, $1 general admission ticket and, of course, $1 hot dogs.
The first night, the Generals sold 7,000 hot dogs.
“That sealed the deal for me,” Brown says.
Brown is soft-spoken when he talks about himself. His voice piques in conversation when he asks how someone else is doing. He always asks, and he always smiles.
Brown had every intention of becoming a lobbyist while studying political science at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Then the Jackson Generals called and asked, after a summer of scooping ice cream and two summers as the main concessions stand manager, if he would be interested in taking over as the team’s manager of catering and concessions. Still in school at the time, Brown said yes to a full-time position.
“I am not under the impression that we’re in the food service business,” he says. “I’ve always thought that we’re in the entertainment business. One thing I stress to all of my employees and that I stress to other employees, who don’t work for me but are all over the park, is the best thing you can do is smile at someone. It’s the easiest form of communication.”
Good service and smiling are so important to Brown that he coined a mission statement for his 65 employees to work by: Quality people, serving quality food, to quality people, with a big smile and a heaping portion of Southern hospitality.
“I want all of our employees to put on a show,” he says. “I want them to be a prepossessing asset to the club as a whole. That everything is so good, that the food is good, that the service is good, that the people are smiling, that you enjoy talking to employees, that everything is so fun, that there just happens to be a baseball game going on.”
Brown adapts the menu most seasons. He was digging around for ingredients one day and plopped his Philly cheese steak toppings on nachos. It’s now a staple. The stadium sells the standard hot dogs and hamburgers, as well as the not-so-common ballpark food like Pringles, manufactured in Jackson, and fish and chips.
“You try to target your region,” Brown says. “You have to really know what your demographic is. The hot dogs we carry here, they’re a house brand through US Foods, but it has more salt in the product. They target the Southern palate.”
Everything Brown does and says is deliberate. Part of that has to do with running a solid business. Part of that is that Brown is grooming himself to be a politician – he has been, one way or another, since he was 8 years old and dreamed about working in the Oval Office.
“I’ve always been under the impression that we need to forget about what’s politically correct and worry about what’s right,” he says, hands folded, sitting behind his desk. “That’s the way I govern myself.” Even though Brown jumped into baseball out of college, he works on Republican campaigns for U.S. and state representatives. He plans to run in 2014 for the Tennessee House of Representative, District 79 seat, which includes Gibson.
The ballpark has been a perfect setting for Brown to meet city residents and hold a captive audience. “I think they feed each other,” he says about transitioning from his current job to, he hopes, one as an elected official. “I get to meet a lot of people not just that come to the ballpark but by going to meetings, going to Nashville. Our owners are both from Nashville.
“There are a lot of good folks in this area and they’ll do anything for you, and that’s one of the things I really like about working here, getting to make lifelong friends that I wouldn’t have.”
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