Travis Wilson was rushing between food course preparation, helping ensure the frenzy ran smoothly, when he experienced a familiar exhilaration.
“It feels like I never left, to be honest,” said Wilson, laughing, during his first return event at last Saturday’s Farm To Table Under The Lights gourmet meal at Blue Wahoos Stadium’s Hancock Whitney Club.
This is partly why Wilson, a Pensacola native and Gulf Breeze High graduate, is back as the Pensacola Blue Wahoos executive chef. He spent the past 18 months working as executive chef at two area restaurants.
“I had a little 18 month sabbatical, I guess you can say,” Wilson said. “Jumping right back in, standing up here and seeing the view again, it’s what it was meant to be.”
After being part of the organization since its inaugural 2012 season, then working his way into three years (2014-17) as Blue Wahoos executive chef, Wilson rejoins in time for the team’s weekend homestand, beginning Thursday night against the Mobile BayBears.
He gives Blue Wahoos Concessions a full-time, on-site chef, along with his local connection with fans and knowledge of what people may like to try.
“Now I feel like we have more of a consistency,” said Eric Kroll, the Blue Wahoos general manager of food and beverage. “He knows the culture, he knows what the expectations are, so the consistency-first approach. And being able to put his flair on the menu items and the premium areas is important. He is extremely passionate about producing good tasting food. It takes a certain individual to manage a ballpark this size and operation this size.”
Wilson left the company after the 2017 season to help open the Brew Ha Ha Restaurant on 12th Avenue. He then worked as executive chef at Fish Heads on Pensacola Beach.
His friendship with Kroll helped spur the decision to return to baseball operations. The two worked together in the team’s first few years when Kroll was box office manager.
“It was kind of the selling point,” Wilson said. “I kinda got burnt out my last season. But knowing Eric, I think we will be a great team. I have done over 500 baseball games, so it was kinda second nature and now it’s a brand new challenge for me. I feel like the fans really loved the food that we did when I was here and I hope to bring that same kind of energy again.”
Prior to the season, the Blue Wahoos revamped their concession storefronts with different themes and designs. But as reminder, people can still get basic fare like hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, peanuts and sodas at all four locations.
The difference is each storefront offers its own specialty items, aside from the tradition fare, that people can try.
“I like it because after seven years, it needed a facelift,” Wilson said. “And it really worked out with the new company coming and offering a new vision of what this can be. I know there were some hiccups during the start, which is going to happen whenever you change something, but I think it’s pretty cool how they made four different restaurant-quality concession stands at the stadium.”
In the short time he was gone, Wilson said he missed the adrenalin rush of helping prepare food for thousands of potential customers in a night-to-night baseball game setting.
“Just the whole theatrics of the game is what I missed,” Wilson said. “I always say one of my favorite moments is standing and seeing people walk up the steps to the ballpark. It’s just a great scene that I will never forget the first time I saw it.
“Running a restaurant is totally different than being part of something like this day to day.”
Likewise, Kroll returned to the Blue Wahoos in a different capacity after being at a different job the past couple years.
“He and I developed a good working relationship and a friendship. And that blossomed into a friendship outside of work,” Kroll said. “And so being able to work on the same team together again, it’s extremely exciting to see him at ballpark.
“We are good friends outside of work and it will be a good working relationship.”