What is hot when it comes to fun foods? Traditional items like hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream are always in style, but parks, zoos and aquariums are finding that options such as wraps, barbecue and even crepes appeal to visitors.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., welcomes approximately 650,000 people annually. This past season, the zoo reintroduced Hawaiian shaved ice to its offerings.
“We saw a lot of success with it,” said Todd Langfield, area general manager with Service Systems Associates. In addition to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Langfield oversees food and beverage for the Denver Zoo and Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in Colorado. “It is an item we hadn’t had for awhile and we wanted to make a little comeback with the item. It looks incredible with all the colors and when you see somebody walking around the zoo with it you almost have to have one. It is almost 10 inches tall from the bottom of the cup and really pretty cool looking. There is a choice of 20 flavors.”
The zoo’s creperie is also extremely popular with visitors. “We try to come up with unique themed locations and the crepes have been doing fantastic,” Langfield said. “It is pretty unique. There are not many creperies in zoos!”
Soft serve flavors at the zoo include chocolate, vanilla and swirl, which is a combination of the two. “The machine only holds two flavors, so it is a roll of the dice if you try to introduce peach or strawberry or something like that,” Langfield pointed out, “so we stick with the classic favorites.” When it comes to hand-dipped ice cream there are numerous flavors offered from local company Colorado City Creamery. The popular ice cream sports regional names such as Pikes Peak Trail, which is Langfield’s personal favorite.
“It is nice because we get to buy local and also promote their brand,” Langfield said. “They make amazing ice cream. They have a number of flavors with themes for the region.”
At the Oakland Zoo in Oakland, Calif., traditional favorites never go out of style. The zoo, which welcomes 750,000 visitors each year, has several dining spots. The zoo seeks to use local suppliers, and that includes the nearly 100-year-old Miller’s, which started in Oakland, for hot dogs.
“We do a lot of burgers and dogs,” said Senior Manager of Food and Beverage Jason O’Kennedy. “They are kind of our bread and butter. It is probably a safe bet to say that is because a large part of our business is children.”
With its health conscious San Francisco Bay Area clientele, the zoo finds that pita wraps made with such things as natural chicken and other relatively lower-calorie and healthier options are also top sellers, especially among adults. And for 2016, a taco shop is opening up. It will sell carnitas and carne asada tacos, as well as quesadillas, to enhance the zoo’s fun food choices.
Pre-packaged ice cream is sold at dining spots and from a seasonal cart. Other ice cream options, including soft serve, may be added when the zoo’s new California Trail exhibit opens, which is currently scheduled for 2018.
“Ice cream can be a tough sell here because it is not usually very hot, except maybe in August,” O’Kennedy said. “I am currently talking to some local companies and something will probably be incorporated in the California Trail [exhibit] when we have a little more control over our footprint there.”
St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park
Across the country in Florida at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, which sees 200,000 visitors annually, weather is also a factor when it comes to ice cream. “The heat index can reach 115-degrees in summer, so ice cream can sometimes be very difficult to keep hard enough and cold enough because we are an outdoor snack bar,” said Lina Hammond, Toucantina snack bar manager. The snack bar sells pre-packaged ice cream bars and previously sold soft serve, until its United Kingdom supplier went bankrupt. Soft serve may return in the future if the right supplier is found.
The park’s top selling fun foods include items like funnel cake fries and Oreo churros. What draws visitors to these creative treats? “People are on vacation and want to let their hair down and splurge a little,” Hammond said. “These snacks are impulse buys.”
To gain more impulse sales, the park recently added a candy shop to its fun food mix. It sells Cow Tales brand candy and other old-fashioned candy treats. “The candy shop is doing really well,” Hammond said. “We added it because we wanted something that didn’t take a lot of labor but that would sell as an impulse buy.”
In addition to its sweet treats and fun fried options, the snack bar offers healthier choices and Hammond believes having a mix of options to satisfy a variety of visitors is important to strong sales. Examples include black bean burgers, turkey and chicken wraps and potato chips that are baked rather than fried.
For 2016, the park is installing customer-facing soda dispensing machines for its Coca Cola products. It is raising the price of its souvenir cups and customers can get free refills.
Baked goods are high in popularity on the fun food menu at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which receives millions of visitors annually. “We have our own bake shop and we bake all of our own desserts,” said Dominick Varacalli, resident vice president of operations with Restaurant Associates, which provides food services to the Georgia Aquarium. “I would say the fruit tarts, pecan tarts and the cupcakes are some of the most popular items we have. We also do cookies, cakes and other things. So right now I will say it is the fresh baked items that are the most popular.”
“You can tell just from looking at them that they are really beautiful and appealing and people like that,” added Joe Kennedy, general manager with Restaurant Associates. “Last summer we had a pop-up cinnamon bun stand out in our atrium. We actually brought the ovens out on the floor and baked them out on the floor. The scent of the warm cinnamon going through the atrium really drove people nuts. It was a very popular station on our busier weekends.”
For 2016, the aquarium is adding a soft serve ice cream cart. The flavors will include chocolate and vanilla. Visitor requests and vendor data will also be looked at to determine what other flavors to add. The cart will also offer coffee, espresso and baked goods.
“We designed the special cart for soft serve so people don’t have to wait in line in our cafeteria and see their soft serve melt,” Varacalli said. “They can pay for it quickly and enjoy it right away.”