By David Wilkening
So what’s new on your fair’s menu this year? Expect no end to the popularity of the familiar corn dog. Attendees are also expected to dig in again to the perennially popular funnel cakes. Healthy choices are always slim here – though more often offered than ever perhaps – but anything fried and simply anything at all on a stick will continue to be certain best sellers. And washing it all down: soft drinks, sure, but more often, bottled water.
But yes, there will also be some new and perhaps unusual items to consume or even older ones re-packaged in new forms this year, according to interviews with fair and carnival officials.
This past year’s Erie County Fair, among the largest in New York and among the top events in the entire United States, found its Pepsi family of soft drinks still popular, but eclipsed by more mundane bottled water.
“Believe it or not, bottled water is more and more positive and was our biggest increase,” said CEO Dennis Lang. “It’s the coolest thing now. Moms carry it in their purses and teenagers just carry bottles of it,” he said. The event celebrated its 175th anniversary last year with record-shattering attendance of 1.1 million. Among the reasons for water’s popularity: health consciousness.
Unlike bottled water, corn dogs have long been synonymous with fairs.
“I think corn dogs were invented back in Texas in the 1940s and people more than 60 years later continue to like then. They tend to like anything on a stick, even candy,” said Bob Shortt of BoMar Enterprises (named for Bob and his wife, Margo) based in Aberdeen, Wash.
Corn dogs are being joined by stick-like versions of a huge variety of products, often fried, including not only meats like chicken, turkey and even alligator, but also pickles and fried eggs. Even giant pork chops on a stick were among the latest offerings at the State Fair of Louisiana, said Robb Brazzel, exhibit and concessions manager. Fried on a stick is also a winning combo with some events offering chocolate-covered bacon and even deep-fried beer.
The type of food served is important because attendees generally rate rides as their first reason for attendance, followed by the food choices. “The number one reason people come to a fair is for the rides, but the food is the second reason. They want something different,” said Dave Jaros, owner of the Hammond, Indiana-based California Donuts, so named because it started there a dozen years ago.
Observers said food choices have not changed a lot with traditional hot dogs, hamburgers and other long-running staples like corn dogs always popular. But such events give providers a chance to try out unusual items to gauge their potential popularity. Everyone involved in providing food brings up the number of dishes fried and/or offered on sticks. Stick foods are always in demand because they are generally inexpensive and represent highly portable “walking around” choices, they said,
“All the cookies you can think of come on a stick,” said Lang, who added that candy bars and chocolate-covered bacon are other portable favorites at the Hamburg, N.Y., event.
In Louisiana, where the fair drew 400,000 visitors this year to Shreveport, some unique offerings included hamburgers with peanut butter and jelly, sometimes known as “pancake burgers,” as well as burgers with perhaps a more typical jalapeno topping.
Some twists on long-time favorites have been popular and remain as future choices. The Arizona-based Am-2-Da-Bar (named after children) has been offering “colossal onion rings.” These are softball-sized versions of large onions split in half. Then, there’s the Walla Walla burger, which is also king-size. The burgers are so big that they have to be eaten with a knife and fork. Owner Bob Cappi’s creative daughter Amber (now 27 years old, she started working fairs at the age of 8) came up this year with another twist on an old product that should be around for a while. It’s called a “Man Dog.” It involves various sized hot dogs from small to larger. The new offering comes not with just the usual accompanying elements such as mustard, but with up to 45 choices of creative and unusual condiments such as crushed Doritos or Oreos or sunflower seeds. “We’ve found out there’s a lot more you can put on a bun besides relish and mustard,” said Cappi, whose family-owned company has been around for 40 years.
Funnel cakes are not unusual but a new red velvet version was a hot seller this year, said Wayne Duval, owner of the Sundae Factory based in Green Bay, Wis.
Geography plays a part in food popularity, fair and carnival officials agreed. In Louisiana, for example, gumbo and Etouffee (a Cajun or Creole dish typically of shellfish over rice) have always been big sellers. At the same time, they’re not generally found in many other states.
Beer is not an unusual beverage to be offered, particularly during sweltering summer months. But some observers said it was far popular than water. The family nature of events may help explain modest beer demand.
Health concerns have led to more fruit stands and tossed salad offerings. Traditional soft drink substitutes continue to pop up such as lemonade, diet sodas, high energy drinks, tea (often flavored), and water.
Some new dishes don’t make the cut. Fresh stuffed cucumbers were among failures in Louisiana. “They were healthy and you’d think they would have been a great addition, but they didn’t do very well,” Brazzel said.
The health food trend is represented by vendors such as the Idaho-based Reed’s Dairy Farm, where upwards of 150 cows are milked to turn products into milk, ice cream and cheese.
Vanilla flavored ice cream nationwide may be the number one seller, but huckleberry flavor is the preferred one for Reed customers who have about 60 choices. Ice cream overall is their best seller. But milk is also popular, while chocolate milk does even better.
“I think a lot of people buy milk because it’s healthy but also because it goes well with fair foods like corn dogs,” said Sam Reed, manager.
New products you can expect to see this coming year include a half-pound banana split at a hefty $8 cost. It’s made for three people or an entire family, Duval said.
Food is such an important lure that the 175th anniversary of the Erie County Fair next Aug. 6-17 will have various edible items in smaller portions priced at $1.75.
Expect corn dogs on sticks and a lot of fried choices, but not the fried grasshoppers found in other countries. At least not yet.
“That could be pushing the envelope too far,” Lang said. –