Feeding Hungry Humans
The Healthy, Fun and Junk Food Outlook at Zoos and Aquariums

April 4, 2013 No Comments

When strolling through a zoo or aquarium you might see signs warning against feeding the animals, but when it comes to the customers themselves, it’s a totally different story. A healthy portion of the money these attractions take in comes from dining dollars, so it’s important that a wide selection of food is available and that there are healthy options to go along with the traditional fun food fare.
“We’re still selling burgers, hot dogs (MSG free), brats and fries and that runs approximately 20 percent of our business, almost $500,000 a year out of a $3.3 million food operation,” said Andrew Stockel, concessions manager for the Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wis. “We have a very strong popcorn business that brings in almost $200,000 a year out of four popcorn wagons, so fun foods remain popular.”
Although the zoo sells large pizzas, Stockel finds that most people choose to share those menu items with the family and doesn’t see large portions consumed by one individual very often.
Lately, the zoo is starting to see a move over to the perceived healthy items, and in 2012 did around $35,000 in the sale of salads. In the spring, the zoo, which attracts 1.3 million visitors each year, is opening its first sub shop. Inside, an artisan baker will make breads fresh every day and use all top meats and fresh produce.
“Guests have been demanding fresh, natural and healthy,” Stockel said. “It’s a positive sign.”
With more than 780,000 annual guests, the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, Nashville, Tenn., understands the importance of having a true picture of what’s selling food-wise and conducts regular item analysis throughout the park. According to Paul Karros, general manager for the zoo, the trend seems fairly consistent.
“About 80 percent of the product mix sold of non snack foods is in burgers, chicken tenders, pizza and hot dogs. That sounds like a lot, but remember that hot dogs are sold throughout the park,” he said. “What needs to be taken into account are the following factors. A, members are our most frequent visitors but not necessarily our most frequent food customers. They can come and go without an admission fee and tend to come more frequently but have a shorter length of stay. B, other guests are most likely having a family or ‘vacation’ type of day. They stay longer and tend to splurge on items they may not normally choose.”
Fun food items in order of sales are soft pretzels, popcorn, snow cones and cotton candy. The zoo staff occasionally hears requests from people for healthier foods, but they are a small percentage of sales, less than 3 percent. Interestingly, bottled water has replaced soda as the number one beverage choice.
Healthy offerings at the zoo include fresh salads, grilled boneless and skinless chicken, turkey, ham and tuna as well as whole and prepared fresh fruit and yogurt. The zoo doesn’t really “push” these items, but they are made available, displayed prior to the ordering process.
“Mothers with young children may choose fresh fruit over sugary snacks but as a rule people at the zoo, or any other unusual venue, tend to be more self indulgent,” Karros said. “After all, it is supposed to be an exceptional day more than a usual one and their choices tend to reflect that.”
The Flamingo Café is the place to visit for dining at the BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, Baton Rouge, La., and approximately 24 percent of its total sales come from the food service. With close to 250,000 visitors each year, that adds up to lot.
“The 2012 Flamingo Café best sellers were our hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries, as well as the 16 ounce beverage,” said Vicki Jones, guest services manager. “Our best-selling fun foods are our snow cones and ice cream. We serve both soft serve ice cream as well as assorted ice cream bars.”
At the end of each year, the zoo conducts a review based on reports available in its food service software to learn what’s selling and what areas need to be expanded on.
As of late, Jones has seen small gains being made with healthier food options, both on the general public menu as well as the pre-order school field trip menu.
“We introduced a fruit-based beverage for kids that has done really well for us. We also offer turkey and ham sandwiches on white or wheat bread,” she said. “Another item that is catching on is the peanut butter and jelly on a graham cracker sandwich called Peanut Butter Grahamwiches.”
Will Parks, vice president of auxiliary operations of the Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, Conn., offers that fun foods comprise 40 percent of all sales, while junk foods come in at 35 percent. Best sellers include traditional fare like pizza, chicken fingers and burgers.
Though health foods sales only account for 25 percent, entrée salads and vegetarian options will soon be added to the menu. The café has also applied its environmental focus to its menu as produce, seafood and some meats and cheeses served are now locally grown, harvested or caught.
“We find that guests come to Mystic Aquarium for a day full of fun, and that includes their food choices. However, we have seen an increase in healthier food consumption in the last few years,” Parks said. “Of our healthier options, fruits and pre-made wraps, salads and vegan/vegetarian entrees are the most popular. These items are displayed right in front of the café, so they are the first thing that guests see when they enter.”
Overall, 700,000 guests come through its doors each year, with 15 percent of the aquarium’s earnings coming from food and beverage.
Naomi Edgecomb, manager and head chef of Victoria’s Restaurant inside the Pueblo Zoo, Pueblo, Colo., is determined to change the perception that all foods at zoos are bad for you and has peppered her menu with 70 percent healthy choices.
“Have you seen America? There are too many kids running around eating things they shouldn’t be and I don’t want to be a part of that,” she said. “We make all our bread from scratch and some of our luncheon foods. We have salads, yogurts, bagels made from scratch and we eliminate a lot of the preservatives.”
Of course, no zoo can stay flush without having some sort of fun foods, and it does offer corndogs, pizza, snow cones and some baked goods, with best sellers being cookies, cinnamon rolls, brownies and raspberry bars.
Don Morgan, executive chef of Zoofari Market at the Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., agreed that healthy options should become more a part of a zoo’s culture.
“We need to save our kids. It goes along with the eco-products, it goes along with the food and it goes along with life,” he said. “You have to make the food fun and make them interested in the healthier items.”
One way Morgan does this is by carving swans and other animals into apples and melons and putting them on display in front of the fruit the restaurant sells. It gets the kids to stop, look and hopefully grab a piece of fruit.
All food is made fresh every day at the zoo, so the pasta, potato salad and burgers (100 percent all-beef Angus) sold are much more nutritious than food that comes from fast-food places or out of a box, so even the traditional fare is healthier than most.
“You’re never going to get kids to stop asking for the junk food at a zoo, but there’s more than just cotton candy and popcorn that you can get them interested in,” Morgan said. “We try to balance it all out and present food choices that parents will be happy about. Sure, they may eat some not-so-healthy things, but if they supplement it with an apple or salad, it’s at least taking a step in the right direction.” -

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