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Hawkeye culture: Fans flock for game day vendors

BY TESSA HURSH | SEPTEMBER 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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Several booths line the streets of Melrose and the Hawkeye faithful crowd the sidewalk to grab a bite to eat or purchase some new Hawkeye apparel.

Those who gather every weekend call these traditions a vital component of game day.

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Ron Christensen started his company with Hawkeye stadium cushions. Twenty-three years later, the owner of Gameday Iowa has increased his merchandise to roughly 4,700 products.

Christensen went to his first Iowa game in 1960, and he has not missed a game since 1966. His booth is at every home game and bowl game. Christensen had to miss the football season last year because of health issues, so let his sons take over for the time being.

He normally hires one of the football players during the season and works around their practice and class schedules. His most recent employee was punter and kicker John Wienke — who worked under Christensen for two years.

Christensen’s son, Dan sets up the apparel booth the day before kickoff, taking him up to 11 hours to do so.

“[Saturday] it’s going to be hot, so a lot of sunglasses, lot of hats,” Dan Christensen said on Aug. 30. “It all depends on the weather, so obviously, we won’t be selling a lot of winter coats.”

Dan Christensen said that when bringing inventory, “it is a guessing game.”

The weather and potential crowd often predict what is sold in the booth.

The father and son duo also have a retail store on the Coralville Strip.

“We wouldn’t be putting 11-hour days if it wasn’t worth being [at Kinnick],” Dan Christensen said. “It’s not just about the sales part; it’s about getting new customers to see us. It’s also good advertising,”

After Dan Christensen’s 11-hour day before the game, he hires security to stay overnight and watch all of his merchandise. He gets back to Kinnick early, around 7 a.m., to start his second 11-hour day.

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Jerry Sweeting, a native of Riverside, Iowa, has been in the food vending business for 10 years, and also caters out of his kitchen on the family farm. Sweeting is a newer vendor, after also working in catering for more than 17 years.

“We have to buy permits from the city and draw out a diagram of how [the booth] is set up,” he said. “The food vendors have to report who is working, what they are selling, and where their food is coming from. The health department comes out early the morning of game day to inspect the vendors’ booths. Once vendors are given the all clear, they are ready to sell.”

Sweeting’s catering company is known for its homemade brats. On a given weekend, Sweeting and his team will cover various events, and one weekend, they catered four weddings. Catering is where Sweeting and his wife make most of their profit, but they enjoy coming back every fall.

“We like the location and then have another spot up Melrose,” Sweeting said. “This gives us something to do.”

Sweeting said that people will buy food depending on if the weather.

“I don’t have any clue if they will eat tomorrow or not,” he said. “If it’s too hot, people will not want to eat hot food.”

That’s why he packed up a lot of water bottles to sell.

“If you have other food around, it really helps,” he said. “Business brings business.”

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Michael and Julie McNurlen are newcomers to Melrose.

The newlyweds and parents to be own Stone Wall Pizza, the business they brought to the Aug. 31 event for the first time. What sets them apart from the rest is their brick oven on wheels.

Michael and Julia are Wellman, Iowa, natives and that’s where the idea for the “pizza wagon” came alive. Michael McNurlen came up with the idea for the wood-fired brick oven at home and started to build it in their yard. Shortly after the oven was built, they took the idea on the road.

Julia McNurlen said that if they run out or have too much left over, then they know for next time. Her famous pizza is a barbeque pulled pork pizza with barbeque sauce.

After much trial and error, she came up with their signature crust that cooks in their homemade wood fire brick oven in two minutes.

Stone Wall Brick Oven Pizza also offers a Pizza on the Farm on the first and third Mondays of the month.


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