By Sara Karnish
Fair and festival midways were silent and empty in 2020 due to COVID-19-related cancellations. As state and local restrictions on masking, social distancing, and venue occupancy ease, 2021 is shaping up to be a much more profitable year. Food vendors are ready to get back into their trailers and trucks to serve up attendees’ longtime favorite fair concessions.
Some vendors introduced new items prior to the pandemic. With event calendars cleared in 2020, many of those items didn’t get to realize their full potential. This year, vendors are optimistic.
“Absolutely everything is trending right now. People went a year without their fair food, and they want it now,” said Kelly Grout, owner of Jack’s Fries in Ware, Mass. “People want to go out and do things—the numbers are looking good.” Grout said his biggest seller in pre-pandemic days was “anything fried. Everything was selling well—funnel cakes, deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried peanut butter cups, and at our French fry stands it was our homemade potato chips and corn dogs. We’ve found that if you put a food on a stick and deep fry it, it will sell.”
Vincent Nelson, owner of Vinnie’s Fine Foods in Kingston, N.Y., said his staple menu items continue to be his best-sellers, but he will add a new menu item from time to time. So customers have more options. “Pre-pandemic, our trends were chicken tenders and French fries with cheese and bacon. We have a very popular mac and cheese fry with bacon on top. I think people enjoy things that are different. They like the extra toppings and flavor combinations.”
Vickie Bragg, co-owner of The Donut Diner in Chatham, Mich., with husband Dennis, said, “The pre-pandemic trends were fun foods …usually anything deep-fried. Since 2003, our concession trailer works mainly fairs and festivals that are surrounded by fun, so the foods tend to match that theme. Whether they’re funnel cakes or mini donuts, [the trend] is fun to eat sweet treats—a splurge item. When we began, it was difficult to compete with elephant ears, and now it seems mini donuts have become more common and sought after. This is a long-term trend we’ve seen, and unrelated to the pandemic.”
Wendy Burnette, operations manager and event coordinator at Tropical Delights LLC in Durham, N.C., said prior to the pandemic, their niche was selling fresh fruit smoothies. “What sets us apart is we core out a pineapple and serve the smoothie in the pineapple. The whole idea is to give the customer an experience; we’ve seen other vendors do the same, which we take as a compliment.” Tropical Delights typically attended smaller events, but the North Carolina State Fair and the Carolina Classic were two large-scale events on their schedule. In 2019, Tropical Delights started offering Dole Whip [a pineapple-flavored soft-serve ice cream] and went on to win Media’s Choice for Best New Food at the North Carolina State Fair that same year.
Doreen Miller, co-owner of Miller’s Homemade Soft Pretzels with husband David Miller in Millersburg, Ohio, said, “We haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to what the trends are. We just do our products our way, with good ingredients and fresh, hot product, which seems to work. We make the freshest homemade soft pretzels and assorted pretzel stick sandwiches, using our own special dough.” For 2021, they are adding their own frosty drink to the menu to replace their long-time staple—fresh-squeezed lemonade—simply because so many other vendors sell it. “We decided to go with something a little more unique—something we can call our own. We offer creamy lemon, orange, strawberry, and mocha frosties,” she explained.
Many vendors expect to have plenty of classic items on their menus with a few surprises mixed in. “The standbys—the French fries, sausage and pepper sandwiches, chicken tenders—they’re overall the most popular items at a fair,” Nelson said. “But you have to offer things to get people interested. I have a friend doing a pickle pizza. And the bacon donut burger is still a popular item in some areas.”
Burnette said they’ve added hot dogs to their offerings and plan to have different toppings available, or a featured Hot Dog of the Month to “keep it interesting.” Burnette said they added hot dogs almost out of necessity. “Every single event shut down. But food trucks were still out, and my husband Reggie [the co-owner] started thinking.” He approached the manager of a local Sam’s Club to see if they could have their trailer available on weekends. “Because [the store’s] concession was shut down, the manager’s only request was that we have a food item available so the store’s employees could get lunch,” Burnette said. “My husband said we could offer them hot dogs. Since April 2020 we’ve been posting up most weekends at the local Sam’s Club warehouse parking lot. It’s been wonderful. People have been so supportive. It’s been a pleasant surprise and good for business. It allowed us to stay open and pay our employees.”
Bragg said as more restrictions are lifted and things open, crowds will return to all kinds of events in full force and enjoy the “fun” foods they missed all year. “My prediction is …they will bring back all the carnival foods that people look forward to enjoying at the fair—food items that are not usually prepared at home, such as elephant ears, funnel cakes, and mini donuts. Not many folks make a hot, fresh mini donut in their home. Perhaps some new flavors and varieties will pop up, but I think that getting back to the special food items enjoyed pre-pandemic, will prevail.” Many vendors keep a close eye on trends by reading industry publications and staying current through membership in industry organizations like the National Independent Concessionaires’ Association (NICA). Some introduce new items occasionally to stay competitive. Yet it’s the standard comfort carnival fare that stands the test of time. Bragg said, “We like to keep current on food trends, but find the tried and true are the best for us. Hot, fresh mini donuts covered in cinnamon and sugar are hard to beat!” She added, “I feel that our customers look forward to seeing us at an event and will look for the items that they associate with us. I would not want to disappoint them by changing my menu. Perhaps a new topping will be added in the future, but I do not foresee dropping an item or adding an entirely new treat.”
Besides adding the mandated items like Plexiglas barriers and hand sanitizing stations (a trend in its own right), many vendors said their core business operation has not changed. As food vendors, they must all meet certain health, safety, and hygiene guidelines, so cleanliness is consistently a top priority. “It is always our goal to offer customers a clean, fast, friendly setup, and provide good customer service. I accept credit cards and cash. I’ve always done these things, so that hasn’t changed much,” Nelson said.
Some positives came out of the shutdown. It opened up more opportunities for the Burnettes. “The major change in our business—rather than just focusing on festivals and fairs, we started following the food truck model and posting up in local areas. We were able to stay in business. If we had kept the festival and fair model, we would probably be out of business or just reopening now. Instead, we followed the food truck model and were able to be that mobile concession.”