Robo-Vendor a can-do salesman


April 14, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

The Orioles aren't the only attraction at the ballpark. There are eccentric fans, memorable vendors and colorful traditions. In this installment of Baseball Journal, meet beer hawker Perry Hahn, known to many as "Robo-Vendor."

Up in the center-field bleachers, Perry Hahn -- beer vendor, mechanical engineer, inventor -- is creating the usual stir. He's trying to peddle beer, but fans keep asking all kinds of questions about his invention, about all those wires hanging on his body.

A woman from Charlottesville, Va., sensing that this lanky figure with the electric can opener in his left fist is an American original, wants to snap his picture. Hahn is accustomed to this, but there's Budweiser to move.

"I need a sale," he protests.

Hahn holds up his can opener and smiles for the camera. Then back to business: He snaps the opener onto two cans, shears off both tops in a blink, pours them with his right hand into two plastic cups, sells them to the Virginia woman and a friend for $7. And he's off, lugging four cases of beer into the crowd.

"It shows American ingenuity at its best," says Kris Lane of Charlottesville, asked why she insisted that Hahn pose for a photograph.

Hahn's colleagues call him Robo-Vendor, some sort of missing link between vendor and vending machine. The can opener becomes part of his body as he works the stands with an array of nickel-cadmium batteries strapped to his hip, a wire running from the power pack to his shoulder and down his left arm. The machine whirs, the cans rotate, heads turn in the crowd.

Hahn says he can open and pour a case of 24 beers in 60 seconds, as long as he doesn't have to make change.

In a field where the competition can be intense, if good-natured, Hahn says he has found a way to compensate for what he describes as his lack of natural talent. He says he doesn't have the gift of gab or coordination of a born vendor. So he uses a mechanical advantage, a contraption he invented and patented and hopes one day to manufacture for sale to vendors and maybe hard-core tailgaters.

On a good beer night, he figures the electric opener gives him a two- or three-case sales edge over vendors who use a standard church key. His best sales day at Camden Yards was 25 cases.

"Oh sure, sure, that helps him a lot," says John O'Hara, a veteran Orioles vendor who ranks right behind Hahn in the season-opening ranking of 130 vendors. Hahn, No. 6, jumped ahead of O'Hara last year in the standings, which are based on the vendor's attendance and total sales.

"I think that was the reason he passed me. It was the opener, not to mention age," says O'Hara, a slim, fit 45-year-old with 20 years of vending experience.

Hahn, 32, has 11 years' experience vending for the Orioles and at such arenas as RFK Stadium, Pimlico Race Course and Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Perhaps even more significant, he holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Maryland, where he graduated in 1986 and where he still takes graduate physics courses.

He worked for a few years as an engineer for a Hunt Valley companybut was laid off in a round of budget cuts. He says that gave him more time to work on his inventions.

The can opener, for example, which Hahn first used in the Orioles' last month at Memorial Stadium in 1991. It was not a smooth beginning.

"It used to break down a lot," Hahn says. "The very last day at Memorial Stadium was the first good day I had with it."

Either the power supply failed or the gears broke or the handle snapped off. Undaunted, Hahn tinkered with this, the third version of his mechanical can opener. O'Hara remembers Hahn leaving the park with cases of empty cans for home experiments.

Vendor Jerry Collier vividly recalls Hahn's air-pump model, the one with all the hoses. This version used two pneumatic prongs to open the cans and had the capacity to pump air into the beer.

"It had a bellows pump action," Collier says. "Beer sprayed all over the place."

Hahn hastens to add that the air version, which he calls the "Beer Blaster," was used chiefly for laughs. Then there was the model with three cutting wheels, which was difficult to handle. Too many moving parts.

Opener III seems to be working.

"It's very impressive," O'Hara says. "Plus, it's a real crowd pleaser."

Hahn says fans are always asking him questions: When are you going to manufacture it? Where do I get one? How much would you sell it for?

Some vendors say they get tired of hearing about Hahn from the xTC fans, who are inclined to ask: "Why don't you have one of those openers?"

So far, use of the mechanical can opener has not spread beyond the Hahn family of vendors. Hahn's brothers, Daniel and J. J. Hahn, use versions of the opener they built themselves. Perry's sister, Annette Heinemann, is not far up enough in the standings yet to sell beer, the most profitable product sold by the top 40 vendors.

Gordon Randall, who ranks just ahead of Perry Hahn in the standings, says he's not worried about being overtaken by Robo-Vendor.

"He always messes up," says Randall, a smiling reference to Hahn's tendency to lose ground due to absence or lateness. "People ask me about the can opener. I always say, 'He's behind me.' "

Hahn says he's researching potential markets and manufacturers for his creation. He estimates that he has spent about $4,500 to develop and patent the device. Has it been worth the investment?

Well, says the modest inventor, "it's a couple extra cases a night."

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