Food for Thought: Listening to the Fun Food Experts

Increasing food sales at miniature golf and go-kart parks requires taking inventory of more than just the food items on hand.  It starts with evaluating your food service operation and the type of attraction it complements to balance the menu with the venue.  Customers want quality, taste, price and interesting items.  From getting the most out of whatever food facilities you have to work with to creating a winning menu by tapping into customer trends and park themes, here’s how some experts are doing it.

As a practical matter, what you can serve is limited by your basic facilities. “We run lean and mean, so we focus more on vending machines and ice cream coolers,” said Ed Parolek, owner of the Sugar Grove Family Fun center west of Chicago.  “We have 17 acres with two go-kart tracks, miniature golf, bumper boats and Water Wars.  In addition, we have a 2,000-square-foot facility for our arcade and party room.  Then next door is the driving range.”

He added that the machines fit his “on-the-go customer base” and noted, “Our top sellers are candy, ice cream and then soda pop, but I lease out space to a hot dog and barbecue stand.  So, they focus more on the food service and I focus more on the fun part.”

No doubt, offering food in vending machines is a convenient and cost-effective way for operators like Parolek to maximize sales, especially with the right products.  But things are always changing.  As industry experts point out, things may be dramatically changing because the line between snack food and meal time dishes is blurring, which can lead to even more profitable machine sales.

Specifically, both the sophistication of the products and the machines themselves are evolving to the point where even things like affordable deli-quality sandwiches with better bread and leaner ingredients are becoming available.  The trick, of course, is to balance the investment and the introduction of new machines with the potential payback.

At seven-acre Visalia Adventure Park in California’s Central Valley, which features miniature golf, go-karts, bumper boats and batting cages, they have factored in demographics and found the right menu for both their facility and their clients.  “We have a pizza buffet tying into our center where our dominant age group is 7 to 70,” said General Manager Roger Hurick.  “The big group is junior and senior high school kids – from the 6th to 12th grade.  Using that premise, those kids love pizza.  We also feature a salad bar, soups, pasta, ice cream and desserts.  So even though kids come first, we have something for everyone.”

Award-winning Odyssey Fun World has two locations in Tinley Park and Naperville, Ill., featuring everything from go-karts, bumper cars and miniature golf to laser tag and a water island. General Manager Clint Paraday has a full-service restaurant for over 500 people and offers everything from pizza and grilled chicken to hot dogs and salads.  This fits the diverse nature of his customer base, but traditional food is still king.  “Our best seller is pizza and we sell between 400 and 500 on a Saturday,” said Paraday.  “We also have nine party rooms and can accommodate parties up to 72 in a private.  And, we sponsor many local sports teams, which tends to boost attendance.” Paraday added, “With the size of our parks – for example, Tinley has an 11-acre outdoor park, we attract a lot of customers and strive to deliver both quality and volume.  For example, we recently upgraded our pizza with a whole new recipe and it still sells at a competitive price.  We experiment some and try different things.”

So keeping it fresh involves more than just the actual food items themselves.  It also involves what you offer.   “I change and rewrite my menu every year,” said Al Colarusso, owner of the food operations at King Richard Park in Naples, Fla.  With go-karts, laser tag, amusement rides, and a concert series, the park draws a broad cross section of patrons.

Colarusso, who has almost 40 years food service experience and owned a chain of restaurants for many years, advised, “You should look at trends to decide what to feature.  I’ve already changed my menu three times in a year and a half.  Take advantage of anything you can do.  For example, I watch a lot of food shows on cable TV to get a sense of what others are doing if it’s economical.  Of course, in this business you can’t bring something that costs a lot to prepare or has too many steps involved because then you just can’t handle it.”

He observed that with some thought and innovation you can often take a trend and use it to increase sales without breaking the bank.  He illustrated by saying, “We all know people in general have an increased awareness and a desire to eat healthier.  I have a health nut chicken salad on the menu that I went somewhere and saw and thought, ‘Wow, this is really good.’  So then I took it a step further and instead of putting mine in a glass bowl, I took a nacho shell and deep fried it and put the salad into that.  It looks more attractive.  People love it.  You don’t have to eat the shell, but if you did, I use non-transfat cooking oil, which costs a little more but is better for you.”

He said you can put a healthy twist on almost anything.  “I offer my Philly cheese steak on wheat bread and my chicken quesadillas on wheat tortillas, so be innovative.” The trend towards healthier diets is not going away since go-kart and miniature golf parks attract primarily younger consumers who face very real issues like obesity and diabetes.  Maximizing the use of your available facilities to develop innovative and smart menus based on both demographics and trends can maximize sales and profitability. –

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