Engaging Guests’ Senses with Food
April 6, 2012
Profit-making Strategies from Haunted Attractions
Owners and managers of America’s haunted attractions are always on the look out to increase profits. One of the fastest ways to boost sales and cash flow, according to experienced haunted attraction owners: Add food and beverage concessions to enhance the customers’ experience. Nancy Jubie of Headless Horseman, a 45-acre historic farm in Ulster Park, N.Y., remembers her surprise at the effect of adding a food and beverage venue at her attraction, which includes four food sites. “We started out with hot dogs and then opened our first café, the Croaked Crow. As attendance grew, so did lines for the food, so I opened a second café, Witch Hazel’s. We doubled profits, and there were no lines for customers.” Jubie’s profit increases continued after she opened a third café, the Coffee Cauldron, and a fourth, the Evil Eatery, which she said never took away from the first two food venues. “Revenue stayed the same. Basically, after we opened the first food venue, attendance was up 100 percent and food sales went up 200 percent.”
Jubie is not alone in her experience. Shane Dabbs, the owner of Disturbia, in Huntsville, Ala., said that 28 percent of his annual profits stem from food and beverage sales. “We want to increase that to almost 30 percent in 2012,” he said, “Food and beverage is a big piece of revenue, but it has to be done right.”
For Dabbs, doing food and beverage right means knowing your customers. “Being from the South, we love deep fried food.” Disturbia’s food offerings focus on items hand-dipped in funnel cake batter and deep fried. “We do hand-dipped, fresh corn dogs and hand-dipped oreos, twinkies and moon pies.” Other offerings include hot dogs, Polish sausage, French fries, chili cheese fries, chicken on a stick, pizza and 15 varieties of caramel apples, along with candied popcorn and cotton candy that fits with the Halloween theme. “We offer orange and green cotton candy and popcorn. We play on everything haunted house-related.”
Tony Wohlgemuth, president of Kersey Valley Spookywoods, a 55-acre farm with a 300-person staff in Archdale, N.C., agreed with staying in theme in food and beverage offerings. “Our food venue, which we opened last fall, is called Tumbleweeds. It fits with our western theme. It has turned into a huge revenue stream.” Customers at Tumbleweeds enjoy corn dogs, hot dogs, pretzels, pizza and French fries, along with fountain drinks from local beverage producer Cheer Wine. And, of course, funnel cakes, which are a perennial favorite at many haunted attractions. “Funnel cakes are a hit because they are a finger food, and a sharing food,” Wohlgemuth noted. His profits stem, in part, from offering fountain drinks and cotton candy, both of which have high profitability margins. He also focuses on the location of his food venues. The Bavarian Nut House at Spookywoods is a case in point. “We put the Nut House near the queue line. As guests stand in line, they smell the cinnamon. We give them the opportunity to buy the nuts. We can’t make them fast enough for the demand.”
Placement of the food is critical to creating revenue, even for those haunted attractions that do not handle their own food and beverages, but rent out space to vendors. “The placement of our vendor is a big deal,” said J.T. Mollner, manager of Freakling Bros., a Las Vegas, Nev.-based haunted attraction with three haunted houses. J.T. and his father, Duke Mollner, owner of Freakling Bros., are newcomers to food and beverage, having just started offering pizza, sandwiches, hot dogs, soda, hot apple cider and coffee last year. J.T. started renting space at his venue out of necessity. “We realized people in line for our Trilogy of Terror (the three attractions comprising Freakling Bros.) were hungry and thirsty. We didn’t want them to leave the venue for food, so we opened concessions.” J.T. said, even in a rental situation, where food and beverage is located makes a difference.
Nancy Jubie and Shane Dabbs, veterans of food and beverage at their attractions, agreed. “People eat with their eyes,” Jubie said. She uses a variety of means to display the food served at her cafes, including three-tier display plate racks, antique glass cabinets and lighted candy cases, with everything decorated for Halloween. In fact, the cafes at Headless Horseman are used for enticing displays of desserts, which include pumpkin pie, apple pie and large chocolate chip and M&M cookies, among other items. Shane Dabbs’ philosophy on food display is simple: Show the customer the food, not the packaging. Dabbs also embraces the power of smell to entice customers. “Smell is important. Don’t cook behind a wall. Let the crowds see you,” he suggested. At many venues, food preparation becomes another form of entertainment to add to the guests’ experience. “Watching people make the food, like watching the kettle corn being hand-stirred, makes it a show that sells,” said Tony Wohlgemuth of Spookywoods.
For these attraction owners, food and beverage is a growth area, and new offerings are in the works for the 2012 season. Scott Davis of Terrorplex Screampark in Mansfield, Texas, with five haunted attractions, notes that each year his venue tries different approaches to food and beverage. In 2011, his guests commented on how much they liked hot food offerings more than just pre-packaged chips and candy. Davis plans on adding fried Snickers and Twinkies to his menu in 2012. There may be two new additions to Disturbia’s expansive menu in 2012: in the testing now are deep fried ice cream and deep fried Kool-Aid, in which Kool-Aid is poured into funnel cake batter, then fried, locking in the flavor. A new novelty for customers: Popcorn holders lit with LED lights. “That’ll bring the cotton candy to life,” Dabbs noted, “and we’ll be able to ask a greater price for our cotton candy.” The Headless Horseman will add to its hot food offerings, which now include sausage and pepper sandwiches, pizza and the ever-popular fresh cut French fries. “We plan on offering slow-cooked rotisseries roast beef sandwiches,” said Jubie. “I’m also going to offer kettle corn and we’re installing a dessert and drink area near our corn maze and at the end of our hay ride.” At Spookywoods, Wohlgemuth’s additions include more pizza and “meal food.”
In the end, owners of haunted attractions derive the greatest benefits by keeping their guests’ experience in mind as they consider ways to increase profits. Adding food and beverage is a way to keep lines down and attract customers with both a variety of local food offerings, from crawfish meat pies at the 13th Gate in Baton Rouge, La., to gummy worm cupcakes that are a top-seller at the Headless Horseman, and the experience of seeing and smelling food being prepared. Tony Wohlgemuth calls this “making food preparation a spectacle.” It is a key ingredient to making the visit to a haunted attraction a complete experience. And doing so can mean big profits. “Food and beverage is such an additional profit-maker for our business,” Nancy Jubie said. “There is so much profit that can be made by adding food to an attraction. People who don’t do that are missing the boat.”
Top Tips for Selling More Food and Beverages
- Give guests food and beverage items they cannot find elsewhere.
- Offer hot-cooked products, not just pre-packaged items.
- Make sure concessions are centrally located, especially near lines.
- Create attractive displays of food, not packaging.
- Cook food in the open, where guests can see and smell the food.
- Keep food and beverage within the theme of your attraction.
- Put fountain drinks and cotton candy on your menu, the mark-up on these items makes them profitable.
- Consider a token system for admissions, so that guests will know how long they have to wait to get into the haunted attraction, and whether they can get in line before or after visiting the haunted house.
- Keep a simple menu, too many choices can slow down purchase lines.
- Offer a discount for staff and volunteers.
- Offer a discount for customers who purchase a VIP ticket, that will increase sales of VIP tickets.
- If you don’t offer food and beverage now, open a venue. If you already have a venue, open another one.