BY CAROLYN LaWELL
ROUND ROCK, Texas | A wooden wedge of yellow cheese sits just down the third base line at The Dell Diamond. The words “The Big Cheese” flash in red neon above the hunk, and an iron cage blocks one of the giant holes to protect the cheese grillers from foul balls.
This is David Hawkins’ dream. Literally.
As an owner of a sewing factory that manufactured spandex tablecloths and seat covers, his entrepreneurial mind raced when, while walking through the Los Angeles Auto Show, he found out just how much food vendors can make in one day.
“Hopefully, the next step is the Texas Rangers.” - David Hawkins, The Big Cheese
“Three days later, I had a dream of making that exact building with the sign on top selling grilled cheese sandwiches,” he says, looking at his creation. He woke up in the middle of the night and sketched what is now The Big Cheese – a triangle frame about 10 feet tall with dozens of holes carved out on all sides.
Hawkins built the wedge, on deadline for its inaugural event, in six days.
He called a buddy from his days in the entertainment business and asked if he would help build The Big Cheese. “We get up, we go to Home Depot, bring home the wood and build it in six days,” Hawkins says. “I grilled the very first sandwich on location at ARAMARK in the convention center that day.
“It went nuts. It evolved from there.”
That was 2002. In the last decade, Hawkins has slapped slices of Tillamook medium cheddar cheese and Oroweat Country Potato bread together, thrown them on a panini grill and sold them at convention centers, speedways, South by Southwest and, now, ballparks. He’s mixed cheeses, added ham, added turkey, added a sandwich on top of a sandwich. He’s grilled enough sandwiches to know what works best.
“You have to keep it simple,” he says.
He subscribes to the In-N-Out Burger approach that quality ingredients and simple recipes make the best product. So he slaps together cheese and bread and serves them hot and fresh – the only way to do it.
At The Dell Diamond, Hawkins doesn’t see the crowds he usually gets at large weeklong or weekend events. But Round Rock Express employees and fans talk about The Big Cheese. Actually, they recommend it.
And Hawkins knows, although the ballpark is a smaller venue, this is just the beginning. He’s building a second stand and working on adding a Big Cheese food truck in Austin.
And he hopes this, here in Round Rock, is just the first taste of The Big Cheese and baseball.
“Hopefully,” Hawkins says, “the next step is the Texas Rangers.”
Time for minor league trivia. Round Rock Express founder and CEO Reid Ryan pitched a pair of minor league seasons in what three cities – all of which still have affiliated teams.
The Express tried to overcome a three-run deficit in the bottom of the eighth Monday night, but could only score one run in an eventual 5-3 loss to the New Orleans Zephyrs. The Express jumped out to a quick start with a single by rightfielder Julio Borbon, who then stole second and third, and scored on second baseman Matt Kata’s single to center. Dusty Brown homered in the second. The Express had men on second and third in the eighth, but couldn’t rally.
In 2011, the Express unveiled a bold new logo that plays off the area’s heritage and the team’s affiliation with the Texas Rangers. The color scheme is blue, red and white, and incorporates the Texas flag, a baseball and a cowcatcher. All of the elements, including the words “Round Rock Express” work together to build the front of a train. The primary logo on much of the merchandise has been the E-train, an E with a cowcatcher at the bottom. “It’s a really powerful, neat-looking logo, so people ask you about it and say, ‘Hey, what’s that?’” says Laura Fragoso, senior vice president of marketing. “I think there’s something to that people like. When you’re out somewhere else and people aren’t familiar with it, maybe in another town or another city, people ask what it is.”
Computer giant Dell is headquartered in Round Rock and has the naming rights to the stadium, which is just 5.3 miles from the company’s main office. In 1984, at the age of 19, Michael Dell founded the company while he was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2011, the company saw a revenue increase of 16 percent, ending the year with $61.5 billion.
Want the answer? The three cities where Reid Ryan pitched as a pro in 1994 and ’95 were Wappingers Falls, New York (the Hudson Valley Renegades); Charleston, South Carolina (the RiverDogs) and Visalia, California (then the Oaks, now the Rawhide).
And in random statistical news, the game started three minutes later than scheduled, the first pitch was a ball, the first batter struck out swinging and the “Star-Spangled Banner” lasted 1 minute, 9.5 seconds. Also, we had six pieces of pizza between us (they were small) and then shared a double-decker grilled cheese from The Big Cheese. Apparently we were really craving cheese.
Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeaosn.com ♦ @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason