Labor strife reigns in the sporting realm.The Redskins are locked out of Ashburn. The Wizards are locked out of the Verizon Center. And Perry Hahn is locked out of Camden Yards.
Hahn’s a beer man.
Actually, Hahn is very possibly the most famous beer man of all time.
“Is that RoboVendor?” a middle-aged guy in a Red Sox cap says loudly in the first inning of a Cubs/Nats game at Nationals Park last week. He’s just asked Hahn to pour a pair of Heineken tall boys for $9 a pop. It’s not clear if thirst or the chance to meet the well-known suds seller inspired this drink order.
Hahn’s nickname, and most of his renown, comes from the whirring wires-and-batteries-and-blades contraption strapped to his wrist. The device lets him rip the tops off two beer cans simultaneously in no time flat. If need be, he can pour a whole case of beer in a minute—with no foam.
In his 31-year career of delivering cold ones, Hahn has been written up in Beer Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and everywhere in between (including Washington City Paper, way back in 1996). He’s also been featured on the Food Network, in baseball documentaries, and on every credible list of quirky stadium characters. Not bad for a beer man.
Hahn, who has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Maryland, owns U.S. Patent No. 5228203 for what is officially called a “Tandem High-Speed Can Opener.” A Riverdale resident, he began tinkering with the device in 1989. That was a year when the upstart Orioles made an unlikely playoff run, drawing larger-than-expected crowds to Memorial Stadium. The venue’s vending staff wasn’t big enough to handle customers’ demands. Hahn needed something to get the beer flowing faster.
And since vendors are paid on commission—15 to 17 percent of sales, depending on the venue—faster pours mean more money.
After three seasons of using the old ballpark as a laboratory for ever-changing designs, Hahn finally had a can opener he could trust. “On the very last day that the Orioles played at Memorial Stadium [Oct. 6, 1991], I finally had developed the can opener to the point where it was more of a help than a hindrance,” he says. “I sold 26 cases of beer that day. My contraption broke down six times during the game, but I had a lot of repair tools with me. I would get a standing ovation from the crowd every time I got it working again.”
Today, Hahn straps on a 17-year-old version of the device, powered by a RadioShack “Turbo Racing” battery, to work in D.C. and Philadelphia, with bigger trips for the occasional Kentucky Derby or Super Bowl gig. He’s at essentially every Nationals game this season, and says he averages “more than one event per day in the summer months.”
Through all the travel, Hahn had stayed true to Baltimore, where he’d sold beer since 1983, when Pabst Blue Ribbon went for $1.40 in the Memorial Stadium grandstand. “I sold many a can to Wild Bill Hagy in Section 34,” says Hahn, referring to the man who was the Orioles’ biggest fan during its heyday. (For a beer man, serving Hagy in the upper deck in 1983 is on a par with a groupie having serviced Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.) Hahn stayed with the O’s through the move to Camden Yards and the founding of the Nationals.
But before this season, the O’s brought in a new concessionaire, Delaware North. When the 12-year deal was announced, the firm released a statement saying it “looks forward to interviewing the non-management employees of the former concessionaire who are interested in employment.”
“Ninety-five percent of the workers were rehired,” says Emilio Abate, chief negotiator for UNITE HERE Local 7-AFL-CIO, the union representing Camden Yards vendors in ongoing negotiations with Delaware North. “But not Perry Hahn.”
Hahn’s brother, Daniel Hahn, also a longtime O’s vendor, was turned away, too.
The Hahns say they’ve yet to be given a reason for the dismissals, despite repeated requests. They insist there are no drug or criminal issues behind the loss of their jobs. “We’re squeaky clean, I promise,” says Daniel Hahn.
The lockout of the Hahns surely isn’t because of past performances: Perry and Daniel, who also uses his brother’s can opener to rip open lager containers, both finished at or near the top of Camden Yards beer seller rankings every year.
“It’s totally nonsensical,” says Abate. “It’s like [Delaware North] has got blinders on and they just won’t hire Perry. He knows the business. He’s popular. He’s good for Camden Yards. For the life of me, I can’t get a straight answer from the company.”
Glen White, a Delaware North spokesman, declines to discuss Hahn’s lockout, citing a company policy “not to comment publicly about specific employees or the specific reasons why a person might not have been hired.”
In the absence of any explanation, Abate has come to the conclusion that Delaware North is using the rehiring of both Hahns as a bargaining chip in negotiations for a new collective-bargaining agreement with the vendors’ union. The brothers were picked by their peers at Camden Yards last year to represent them in the talks.
“As far was we’re concerned,” says Abate, “getting [the Hahns] rehired is a key to the negotiation.”
But neither Hahn is so desperate to comeback that they’ll make the former co-workers take a hit. Currently, O’s beer sellers get 17 percent of sales; at Nats Park, it’s 16 percent.
“I have told [UNITE HERE Local 7 negotiators] I won’t be used as a chip,” Hahn says. “I want my job, but I don’t want my job back if it means the vendors have to give up a percentage.”
Delaware North’s White won’t comment on whether Hahn’s employment status is in any way connected to the labor negotiations.
Stadium vending, which has been Hahn’s primary source of income since the early 1980s, can pay a living wage. At the Nats/Cubs game, Hahn says he sold five cases of beer; at $9 apiece and with a 16 percent commission, that means he made $172.80 plus tips. Hahn says he’s always been frugal, but large investments in “the Russian stock market and Continental Airlines just before 9/11” wiped out most of his savings. Money spent in a thus-far vain effort to mass-produce the tandem can opener for fellow vendors also bit into his retirement.
Now the loss of 81 potential paydays at Camden Yards stings, too.
But it’s not just money that propels Hahn to strap on his can opener and lug boxes of beer up and down the steps into life’s middle age. The notoriety tides him over, also. A few years ago, Hahn says, a beer-buying customer told him that he was responsible for her son having just graduated from college as a mechanical engineer. “It seems that when he was about 10 years old, he was asking me about my can opener,” Hahn says. “I apparently gave him a detailed explanation, which started him on building his own contraptions.”
The non-fiscal perks still come his way.
“It’s like being a celebrity,” Hahn tells me as we talk in Nationals Park after the seventh-inning last call. “I get recognized every game by fans from Baltimore. I love the fans, and that’s what bothers me the most about not being allowed there.”
As Hahn talks, a guy who identifies himself as Mike Williams from Philadelphia walks up and interrupts. “I just want to tell you you’re my favorite beer man,” Williams says, poking at the wires hanging from Hahn’s magical power tool. The encounter leaves both guys with big smiles.
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