Fairs and Carnivals: The Latest in Fun Foods

With countless venues vying for the typical consumer’s entertainment dollar these days, it’s hard to remain a top pick. Yet many fairs and carnivals manage to pull it off. How they accomplish the feat has a lot to do with the fun foods people know they’ll find there.

The Willy Wonka burger from the Nebraska State Fair is a seasoned burger with a melted peanut butter cup, smoked cheddar and jalapeno crisps. 

The Willy Wonka burger from the Nebraska State Fair is a seasoned burger with a melted peanut butter cup, smoked cheddar and jalapeno crisps.

Jason Au, owner and operator of Canadian-based Tin Lizzy Concessions calls it the “I gotta try” mentality. “Food is such a big attendance driver,” he said. “In the past, the midway, the carnival, may have been the big draw but what we see now is as much as 74 percent of people that are coming for the midway are actually coming over to the food side as well.” Traditional news outlets along with social media fuels a lot of the frenzy and concessionaires these days are knocking themselves out trying to come up with new and crazy food ideas. “It’s a one-off, it’s the ‘I gotta try’ item, something different you can’t get anywhere else that gives people extra incentive to go to the fair,” Au explained.

The Nebraska State Fair New & Unique Food Contest Winner Jeff Leo, owner and operator of Cactus Jacks, shown with Jaime Parr, facility director, Nebraska State Fair, Lindsey Koepke, Nebraska State Fair 1868 Foundation director and Jim Reed, Nebraska State Fair 1868 Foundation board member.

The Nebraska State Fair New & Unique Food Contest Winner Jeff Leo, owner and operator of Cactus Jacks, shown with Jaime Parr, facility director, Nebraska State Fair, Lindsey Koepke, Nebraska State Fair 1868 Foundation director and Jim Reed, Nebraska State Fair 1868 Foundation board member.

Tin Lizzy Concessions’ fleet of eight trailers and two food trucks travels a western North American route that encompasses fairs and carnivals in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba as well as Utah and Arizona. When inventing “I gotta try” food items, Au likes to take long-time carnival staples and put a spin on them. His Porcupine Corn Dog is a traditionally battered corn dog with French fry pieces on the outside giving it a porcupine appearance. Mini donuts served on a stick have long been a specialty. “We’ve done red velvet but now we’re starting to see Nutella step up. Creations like Nutella dessert fries, Nutella candy apple. So we’re going to launch Nutella Glazed Mini Donuts on a stick in our 2016 season,” Au said.

Jaime Parr is the facility director of the Nebraska State Fair which runs for 11 days each summer in Grand Island, Neb. and ends on Labor Day. “Hot fun food trends for us include anything fried and anything bacon, with Sriracha hot sauce right up there as the favored condiment,” she said. Fair goers clamor for creations like Pork Stickers and Bacon in a Blanket at this midwestern event where attendance figures topped 350,000 in 2015. Spam on a Stick was a novelty this past season that also sold well.

Two girls wearing duck bill hats were photographed with ice cream at the Nebraska State Fair. The fair runs for 11 days each summer in Grand Island, Neb.

Two girls wearing duck bill hats were photographed with ice cream at the Nebraska State Fair. The fair runs for 11 days each summer in Grand Island, Neb.

In order to draw attention to recently concocted cuisine, the Nebraska State Fair holds a New & Unique Food Contest on opening day. Celebrity judges are on hand to do a live tasting and provide complete written assessments of each item. Once the winners are determined, naturally the press loves to descend and write a story, which in turn whips up interest in potential patrons with adventurous palates. A couple of gourmet hamburgers nabbed first and second place respectively in 2015 – namely, the Tumbleweed Burger which featured pepper jack, smoked cactus, jalapeno crisps and bistro sauce and the Willa Wonka, which incorporated a melted Peanut Butter Cup, smoked cheddar and jalapeno crisps.

At the Nebraska State Fair, pictured are the New & Unique Food Contest judges posing with winning burgers. Shown are Jana Kruger, Nebraska State Fair Board Member, Josh Spreiter, Steve Franzman, Steve White, Jill Marshall and Lindsey Koepke.

At the Nebraska State Fair, pictured are the New & Unique Food Contest judges posing with winning burgers. Shown are Jana Kruger, Nebraska State Fair Board Member, Josh Spreiter, Steve Franzman, Steve White, Jill Marshall and Lindsey Koepke.

The Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y., is keen on running contests too which stir up conversation about their food offerings. The Northeastern event is the 10th largest fair in North America with average attendance hovering around 1.2 million. “The staples from the old days – the French fries, the fried dough, the Italian sausage – they’re still there but we run a couple of contests to initiate new foods,” said Jeff Horbowicz, concessions manager. “One is called the New Food Showdown where all our concessionaires are asked to come up with a fresh, new food idea and get kind of crazy with it.” The 10 top entries are offered to the public to vote on through the fair’s website or on their smart phones with the winner being announced towards the end of the event’s 12-day run each August.

The New Food Showdown is how creations like Beef on Weck Eggroll (a Buffalo, N.Y., favorite wrapped up in an eggroll), Bacon Funnel Cake on a Stick, Baconana (chocolate covered frozen banana with bacon pieces mixed into the coating) and Southern Fried Chicken Donut (crispy fried chicken with chipotle sauce nestled between two halves of a glazed donut) have made a name for themselves at the Erie County Fair. Two years ago, in an attempt to combat high food prices, the fair instituted something they call a Taste of the Fair. All concessions present a sample size product for $2 and often, some of their crazier creations get introduced this way generating more revenue and gaining media support.

Phat Dawgs and Wiggle Chips from Tin Lizzy Concessions. The company’s fleet of eight trailers and two food trucks travels a western North American route that encompasses fairs and carnivals in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba as well as Utah and Arizona.

Phat Dawgs and Wiggle Chips from Tin Lizzy Concessions. The company’s fleet of eight trailers and two food trucks travels a western North American route that encompasses fairs and carnivals in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba as well as Utah and Arizona.

The Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, Kan., has cooked up a unique way to get the word out about the latest in fun foods at their 10-day event which starts the Friday after Labor Day. “For the last two years, we’ve created a T-shirt that’s called the Foodie Tour which lists the new foods on it,” said Sue Stoecklein, commercial exhibits director. “It looks like a concert tour T-shirt with little check boxes so if you want to go around and try all these new things and track it all on your T-shirt, you could.” She always makes a point of mentioning the T-shirt during print, TV and radio interviews. The fair also maintains a strong social media presence through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

A good number of food trucks have been submitting applications, something the Kansas State Fair had never experienced until recently. In 2015, a Hawaiian-themed food truck sold native lunch fare including tuna poke with rice, kalua pig and teriyaki chicken. Other fun foods at the event which averages an annual attendance of 350,000, feature spins on old favorites – pumpkin spice funnel cake, for instance. “One vendor offered something he called chicken lollipops. He took chicken legs and pushed the meat to the top, wrapped it in bacon and then smoked them. Those went over like gangbusters,” Stoecklein said.

The Nebraska State Fair New & Unique Food Contest judges photographed with food. The contest is held on opening and helps draw attention to new fair cuisine.

The Nebraska State Fair New & Unique Food Contest judges photographed with food. The contest is held on opening and helps draw attention to new fair cuisine.

A little imagination, a dash of the absurd and a handle on what flavors and foodstuffs people really like can frequently lift a ho-hum carnival staple to new heights. It’s a win-win situation for food vendors and midway operators alike.