From Classics to Concoctions
The Food Picture at Fairs and Festivals

When it comes to concession food trends at fairs and festivals, crowds seem to love classic favorites, but they also like to try the latest and greatest culinary concoctions.

Although people like to try everything from fried Kool-Aid to anything on a stick, fair managers say people are creatures of habit.

“French fries, corn dogs, funnel cakes, kettle corn and cotton candy – the typical foods are the most popular and biggest money makers for us,” said Scott Dow, manager of the Hillsdale County Fair in Hillsdale, Mich. “I think when people are heading to the fair, they have in their minds, mostly, what they are going to get. There are people that get in their car and know they are going to the same Polish sausage vendor every day we have the fair. People are just like that. There are certain foods the general public just enjoys as a whole. And the fair is the one time of the year they can come and indulge in what they are familiar with and look forward to.”

The East Texas State Fair in Tyler, Texas, also attracts people with favorites on their minds.

“We actually did a survey last year and this year, and the two most popular items were the standbys: corn dogs and funnel cake,” said Heather Pickett, director of presentation and development of the fair. “We are very much a food fair. When we ask people why they come out, the number one answer is usually the food.”

Tracy Pelzer, finance and commercial exhibits director for the North Dakota State Fair in Minot, N.D., said corn dogs and funnel cakes rule at the fair.

“We had red velvet funnel cakes that did really well, which offered a twist on a fair favorite,” she said. “But people are really coming out for funnel cakes, corn dogs and Tubby’s Burger, which is just a good burger.”

The Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, Kan., also believes staples are the breadwinners, but staples with a twist. “I would say our fair is known for food at the top,” said Sue Stoecklein, commercial exhibits director. “When they come here, the number one thing they plan to do is eat here. And people want iconic foods. So one of our concessionaires does great with Pronto Pups, which are like corn dogs, but if you called them a corn dog, the owner would not be happy because the quality of the dog is better and there are some unique qualities to the coating, which is hand-made.”

New funnel cakes are also introduced at the fair each year, including the red velvet and a carrot cake version with cream cheese icing.

“And then another one did a Turtle Funnel Cake, which was a classic funnel cake but topped with caramel, chocolate and walnuts,” said Stoecklein, whose fair drew nearly 345,000 people over 10 days last September and featured 103 food locations. “I think people come here because they know they are going to get the best food. For example, we have a guy who does fried green tomatoes. And he actually insists on going to the local market to buy them. One year, when there was a shortage of them, he drove to the Kansas/Missouri border because he needed them to be a certain quality. And people care about quality.”

People, however, have some room for experimentation, especially when it comes to fried foods.

“We have concessionaires come to us every year with what they are going to try, and fried food is always on the list,” said Dow, whose fair attracts more than 150,000 people over a week every September. “Fried pickles are popular right now, but there’s always something deep-fried or chocolate covered. And we watch other fairs and make sure we jump on the bandwagon. But what you generally see is that something like that is popular for a year or two and then gets replaced by something else.”

The East Texas State Fair, which drew nearly 250,000 people over 11 days last September, also does well with fried goodies.

“Fried Kool-Aid was a winner this year, and so was fried root beer,” Pickett said. “And fried pickles were the number one seller for one of our vendors. We actually had a cocktail party for a launch event of the fair and we served mini corn dogs and deep fried pickles.”

The Indiana State Fair is also not immune to the fried frenzy.

“The last five or six years, whatever novelty items they decide to fry sell,” said Bruce Sigmon, operations manager for the Indianapolis-based fair. “The deep-fried donut burger, Kool-Aid, Snickers bars, Reese’s, Oreos, you name it. The craze started with Twinkies, which aren’t popular anymore, and just moves from item to item.”

Other than fried everything, anything on a stick is the latest trend at fairs around the nation.

“Sausage on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, corn dogs, we even had pork chops on a stick this year,” Pickett said. “We actually did a main TV spot about food and talked about all of the food on a stick we offer and said ‘Everyone knows that calories on a stick don’t count.’ ”

The Kansas State Fair has seen recent success with Mongolian grill items such as skewered beef, chicken and shrimp; Moink Balls, which is a beef meatball wrapped  in pork with a special sauce on a stick; and even Beer on a Stick, which is a plastic holder that holds the cup with a handle that looks like a stick.

“When a concessionaire comes in and tells me they have something on a stick, they have my attention,” Stoecklein said. “The point is making it portable. People want to walk around and chase their kids or whatever with food that is easy to walk around with.”

Regional favorites are another reason people go to state fairs. In East Texas, it’s giant turkey legs. In Michigan, it’s elephant ears.

A vendor at the North Dakota State Fair introduced poutine this year, and it was a smashing success. “They are fries with cheese curds and gravy, and they did amazing,” Pelzer said. “They experienced tremendous sales.”

The Indiana State Fair does particularly well with its food offerings from local organizations and state groups.

“So the Dairy Bar Association does great with grilled cheese and milkshakes, items like that,” Sigmon said. “The Indiana pork producers offer pork chops and basically anything from a pig. And there are others, too. People want the real deal, but they also want to support these groups.”

“Authenticity matters,” Stoecklein added. “We have church organizations here making homemade chicken and noodles and fresh pies that they bring in every day from gals cookin’ em fresh. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church makes Mexican food such as burritos and tacos. There are no chain restaurants allowed here. People want authenticity.”

Fairs work hard to increase the visibility of the food at the fair, before it happens and also while it is happening.

“Some concessionaires actually take ads in the paper or our premium book to get the word out, but some of the vendors have been here for 70 years, so no marketing is needed,” said Dow, noting about 20 percent of the fair’s revenue comes from food. “At the fair, some of them use window displays. I think the real attraction is the flashy trailers and food trucks. They are professionals, not fly-by-night vendors. They have skirts on the bottom and lights and keep things clean with nice displays. And that’s attractive to people.”

Pelzer, whose fair drew about 310,000 people over nine days last July, said flash wins.

“I think people are used to coming here for food so it’s not something we have to worry about, but when they are here, I think the way the trailer or truck or stand looks makes a big difference,” she said. “The cleanest, prettiest trucks seem to draw the most attention, especially if they have lights and people can see them preparing food.”

The Indiana State Fair takes great pride in its food and actually used the food to boost an off day, starting $2 Tuesdays.

“We are always promoting our food because it’s the number one reason people come to our fair,” Sigmon said. The event drew more than 850,000 people over 17 days last August. “So we started the $2 Tuesdays promotion, which means we allow people in at the gate for $2, and every food stand must provide something for $2 that people will really want. And it has taken off. It’s now a popular day.”

Stoecklein said presentation can make or break a vendor.

“Some people have really fancy food trucks that just look great, and people like that,” she said. “We have one man from Greece who has his display so people can see through the glass that he is cutting the meat off and serving it fresh. We have ladies who are making cheesecakes and dipping them in chocolate so you can see them do it. And Cookies by the Cup is baking cookies at the fair, and the owner has a fan to blow the smell of the fresh-baked cookies into the midway. And then people have great pictures and cutouts of their food, too, to draw people in. My advice is flash is cash. Draw interest because you have 10 days to make as much money as you possibly can.”

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