By Hilary Danailova
It’s a three-mile walk all the way around the lions, elephants and bears at Zoo Miami. And Florida is hot – so dehydrated patrons are grateful for a cold beer or soda from a cart along the way.
“People tend to get thirsty a lot faster than they get hungry,” said Christopher Hepp, general manager of food services and retail at Zoo Miami, explaining the success of his strategically placed carts and kiosks. “The carts are designed to capture our customer’s eye when they walk by. It just looks really cool and refreshing.”
At zoos, aquariums and amusement parks from coast to coast, food services managers said their temporary carts generate revenue while satisfying hungry visitors on the go. Mobile and versatile, the wheeled stations and kiosks offer a fast, convenient stop for a snack or drink. “No one has to go sit down anywhere,” explained Jena Strzalkowski, food supervisor at the Akron Zoo.
This summer, Strzalkowski is planning to expand on the current pretzel stand and Dippin’ Dots cart to include so-called floaters and roamers – carts that will be moved throughout the day, bringing an expanded variety of snacks to wherever the crowds are. “We can be even more successful by putting them at everybody’s disposal,” Strzalkowski explained.
Convenience is one reason why food carts are winners. Another reason, managers said, is affordability. With some ambitious exceptions, park carts generally rely on lower-cost, broadly appealing snacks and drinks – hot dogs, ice cream, lemonade, pretzels and candy. Dippin Dots, the inexpensive frozen dessert, is especially popular because it doesn’t melt as fast as regular ice cream.
At the Austin Zoo, “you can buy a hot dog, bag of chips and a Coke for $5,” said Tammy Myers, who manages the zoo’s concessions. “If you have three kids and your husband, you’re looking at $25 for all five of you to eat” – a better value than restaurants.
For attractions with gastronomy-related themes, food carts are more than just a lucrative convenience; they’re also an opportunity to extend the brand. Mobile fare goes way beyond pretzels at theme parks like Knott’s Berry Farm, which was born as a restaurant in the 1930s and today serves up gourmet items like smoked turkey legs and chocolate-drizzled cheesecake at its festive carts.
Russ Knibbs, vice president of food and beverage at the Buena Park, Calif., attraction, heads a passionate team of mad scientists, as he calls them, who concoct seasonal treats featuring farm bounty. So in addition to fresh fruit and cold drinks on ice, Knibbs’s team offers boysenberry-sauced alligator meat and chicken wings for a spring festival, or four kinds of kettle corn with gooey toppings. “We always say it’s the marketing that brings people to us, and it’s the food and beverages that bring them back,” noted Knibbs.
And since fish are the main attraction at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, Director of Food Services Catherine St. Jean said it was logical to put them on the menu too. For summer, mobile kiosks on the aquarium decks will feature a new lineup of salmon burgers, sushi, and other fish entrées. This winter, the aquarium introduced a successful hot chocolate kiosk with add-ons like marshmallows.
St. Jean said the upscale offerings not only tie into exhibits, but also speak to customers’ desire for fare that is healthful and sustainable – values that aquariums, zoos and other nature-oriented attractions increasingly embrace. But putting quinoa on the menu can be a challenge for the bottom line: “With increases in food prices, it’s really hard right now to balance price and quality,” St. Jean noted.
Still, Americans’ evolving palates are prompting hospitality managers to broaden mobile menus – especially when exotic offerings tie into special exhibits. Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches and Asian bao buns will be on sale near this spring’s new ninja-themed attraction at LEGOLAND California Resort in Carlsbad, according to Food and Beverage Supervisor Andy Mackey. There’s also a kiosk with Spanish-style churros.
In the end, the biggest challenge in expanding mobile dining options may be valuable park real estate. At Abilene Zoo in Abilene, Texas, Concessions Manager Vickey Byers would love to expand beyond Dippin Dots, fresh-squeezed lemonade and popcorn. “We’d like more variety,” she said, “but hot stuff needs a kitchen. We’re not a big zoo, and space is an issue.” In summer, the zoo puts out three carts at a time, a delicate choreography that takes into account weather – if it’s hot, sno-cones are a must – as well as crowd patterns and temporary exhibits.
At the Austin Zoo, limited space is why Tammy Myers ultimately decided against fresh fruit, even though it’s healthier than sausage wraps. “People don’t want to spend a dollar on an apple at the zoo,” Myers said. “They want a treat.”