Carla Meyer

Dining review: The great (Sleep) Train robbery

It was hard to do this with a straight face. I got in line at a concession stand during a recent Sacramento Kings game, caught up in the moment, sure, and submitted myself as a willing participant in a scheme to extract inappropriate amounts of money from my person.

I waited patiently. It had been well documented that the food here was trending upward, that the various concession concepts had embraced the farm-to-fork movement and the craft beer boom. People streamed past in all directions, an endless procession of chatter, folks in boots and sneakers and baggy jeans and jerseys, all on a quest to gather as one noisy force and cheer on the team.

The power of crowds is very real, and I was feeling it on this December evening, the urge to be a part of it. I wanted to heckle the Lakers. I wanted to guzzle overpriced beer. I wanted to tear into a warm chicken sandwich, even if the meat was overcooked and the bun undeniably stale.

I also wanted to see how some of the priciest food in town held up to a modicum of scrutiny. And being an arena is no excuse. Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats Triple-A baseball team, takes its food seriously and does plenty to elevate its cuisine, much to the delight of fans.

But Sleep Train Arena has yet to earn the same reputation. In fact, I’ve decided to call this over-the-top dining experience the Great Sleep Train Robbery, a heist without ski masks or weapons but with plenty of hostages nonetheless – more than 17,000 enthusiastic, possibly dumbfounded fans eager to support the home team at nearly any cost.

Or at least I thought it was a heist until I contacted a scholar who thinks about these kinds of issues all the time. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, says it’s not gouging because we know the prices going in. It’s “price partitioning,” meaning the overall price is divvied up – tickets, parking, food, souvenirs – so we don’t feel the pain, and we have the option not to participate in some of it.

If you have a price ceiling, price partitioning is a way around it so you pay more without really feeling it. I’ll explain as we go along.

I order a craft beer, a rich and full-flavored Coloma Brown by American River Brewing, poured into a clear plastic cup, forking over $14 as if it were a perfectly reasonable thing to do. What kind of tip do you leave in a transaction that feels more like a holdup?

The game was nearing tip-off and I felt my money was not going so much for this one beer but for the greater good. I’m supporting the local team, a stay-here movement, a local brewery on the rise. But if part of the fan experience was the empty feeling of going broke by halftime, I would soon be getting the hang of this.

It went on that way throughout the night, a solitary man eating and moving from one concession to the next, ordering more and paying more for food that was mostly lackluster, sometimes inedible and always overpriced.

We can argue about ticket prices for pro basketball, but Ariely believes price partitioning is actually a benefit to the less well-heeled. You don’t have to enjoy a beer to enjoy the game. And if you’re on a budget, you are welcome to eat before you get to Sleep Train.

Still, I was after the complete NBA experience. I wanted to let it ride. I got a margarita for $10.50 and found it rough around the edges, if not watered down. I got a standard domestic beer for the bargain price of $7.

With apologies to Pizza Guys endorser and superb point guard Isiah Thomas, I got pizza ($6.50 per slice) that didn’t deliver. It was wrinkly and greasy and lukewarm, thanks in part to heat lamps. In basketball parlance, let’s call it a brick.

The King Dog ($5.50) vs. the Arena Dog ($4.25)? I know. You’re on the edge of your seat. Yet, the former is simply bigger and coats your palate with more of those chemical additive flavor notes. All I know is I had a $9.75 tummy ache.

The highly anticipated carver stations, with names like Capital Cut Carvery and Smoque House BBQ, were highly disappointing. I mean, carving is so much more impressive than slicing or hacking at meat. I was expecting artisanal something or other, with smells and textures and flavors that would leave me transfixed, possibly sticking my chest out like one proud foodie.

It didn’t work out that way. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich served on a stale bun, and paid another $12.50. I got a presumably healthy version with turkey slathered in sauce, and could not tell which was which. I didn’t have any vegetables, though there are a few meatless options here and there. The plain turkey sandwich was reasonably tender, but very bland. And my chicken carver sandwich was an unbearable combo of dry meat meets dry bread. Indeed, every bun or piece of bread I ate in the arena was stale.

But I didn’t feel gullible about all this only because so many others at the arena were doing the same thing. At one point, I wondered: Did someone else feel OK paying triple the going rate for a decent beer because he saw me do it so readily? Was my participation helping to keep these prices ridiculous?

Apparently, that’s a good part of the equation in this kind of captive-audience concession pricing, according to our helpful professor of behavioral economics.

“The fact that you see everybody around you purchasing those things makes it socially acceptable,” Ariely told me. But it didn’t make it any easier to swallow.

Nevertheless, it’s a big part of the dynamic that makes this seem more reasonable. We expect high prices. We choose to play along or avoid eating. But we understand what’s going on.

You pay, say, $100 for the ticket, another $10 goes to parking, which is normal for sporting events even though it feels wrong. Then the food and drinks are optional. Do you want to blow another $50 eating and drinking? Or do you just want to watch everyone else do it?

The Kings group has struggled with getting the balance right with food. The team has tried to have more fresh ingredients, but those things take time to assemble, leading to longer lines and waits for food. But the food has not gone nearly far enough to be considered reasonably good or a reasonable value.

If you do decide to dig in and eat, you’re probably subsidizing the ticket price for someone who decides against doing so at Sleep Train. While that’s much appreciated by those of us on a budget, based on my rather hearty and at times reckless sampling, forgoing the food altogether is the prudent choice.