By Jennifer Byrne
Connie McKinney will not be sold on deep fried butter.
Even though the hot new concession item was the big buzz at the 2011 Iowa State Fair, McKinney is less than wowed by the notion of a whole stick of butter dipped in batter, deep-fried, and coated in a sugary glaze.
“I think it’s something that’s going to be short-lived,” said McKinney, owner of Connie’s Concessions in Mallard, Iowa. “Everyone’s going to want to try it once, but will they come back?”
Striking a balance between classic fair foods and attention-grabbing novelties is one of the challenges of concessionaires at fairs and festivals.
“People do get excited about new, unique things they might find at a fair,” said Camellia Dennis, co-owner of Allan Dennis concessions in Naples, Texas. “Back when deep-fried Oreos were big, people all wanted to try them. You do have to be creative, and try something new.”
Dennis did acknowledge, however, that unless the exotic new item also tastes good, it’s unlikely to draw repeat customers.
“They’re going to try it, but then they’ll go back and get corn dogs,” she said.
McKinney said despite his distaste for deep-fried butter, he is open to premiering new foods, adding that the better ones end up sticking around for a while.
“We did add deep-fried pickles, that was actually the last new item we added,” he said. “It’s an odd item, but it sells very well, and it’s been around maybe seven or eight years.”
In fact, one of McKinney’s best-selling items, “Greater Taters,” was once looked upon as a passing trend. The spiral-cut potatoes, which are cooked for only 40 seconds, are less greasy than typical fries, making them popular with health-conscious adults.
“Everyone thought Greater Taters were going to be a fad,” he said. “That was 21 years ago.”
Attempting to appeal to customers based on health and weight can be a tricky business, and is often as likely to fail as to succeed. Carolyn Crum said she found this out the hard way.
“I tried salads, and it didn’t go over,” said Crum, owner of Blue Ribbon Grill, Inc. in Citra, Fla. “I thought people might want something other than the typical stadium food. But it turns out that when people get in that environment, everything goes out the window, the more calories, the better.”
Crum has found, however, that fairgoers do have discriminating tastes when it comes to quality, as evidenced by the popularity of her Angus hamburger.
“I think it’s because we serve a big, half-pound, and it’s good quality beef,” she said. “What we found is that most of the time at fairs, the hamburgers are very thin, and not very good quality. Everyone gives our hamburgers rave reviews.”
Certain healthy food items might do well in regional areas, Dennis said. She began selling copas de frutas – fruit cups – seasoned with chili powder and lime juice. She said this is a very popular item in areas with large Hispanic populations.
“We work down in the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas, and we’ve started selling these plastic cups with watermelon, strawberries, whatever fruit I can find,” she said. “Down in the valley, it does very well.
M. Louis Harvell said he has also noticed regional trends in concession items. For example, roasted corn is the number-one seller in Miami, and the second most popular item in Minnesota.
“Anywhere the corn is just being harvested, corn is great,” said Harvell, owner of Harvell Concessions in Pensacola, Fla. “Corn dogs are probably number one at the Minnesota State Fair.”
Various types of sausages are also popular in Minnesota, he said, while Ohio prefers fresh-made ice cream. Funnel cakes, beloved in many parts of the country, are all but nonexistent in Miami.
“In Miami, they don’t eat funnel cakes, they eat elephant ears,” Harvell said.
Novelty items that are sold strategically to certain regions also do well, he said.
“The state of Ohio is the Buckeye State, and they came up with a deep fried buckeye, which sells well,” he said. “People will try something new if it’s advertised right.”
Sandra Baker, owner of Nana’s Famous BBQ and Grill in Broomfield, Colo., said she even tailors the dressings on her burgers to appeal to different areas.
“We have a Hawaiian burger, with pineapples, a Chicago Burger, which was a big hit, and a New York burger,” she said. “It’s a nostalgic twist on the burger, and people seem to like it.”
She also said the degree of health-consciousness depends on the region. “In Colorado, they’re more likely to want the healthier choices,” she said. “In the South, they want deep fried food.”
But according to Everett Lee, owner of C&E Concessions, LLC in Mangum, Okla., fairgoers will always come back to certain enduring items, such as fries or funnel cakes. He said his curly fries and funnel cakes made from scratch are far and away his top sellers.
Lee said he sticks to a few tried-and-true items, both for philosophical and pragmatic reasons.
“Our trailers are specialty-built to make certain foods,” he said. “When you throw something goofy in there, it throws off the whole rhythm of your trailer.”
He said his business has not suffered for its lack of fad items.
“People might try the deep-fried Reese’s Pieces,” he said, “but they’ll be back for funnel cake.” –