Food Trends for the Times

By Sara Karnish

Besides the rides, food is typically the main attraction at amusement parks. As operators close out the 2021 season and look ahead to 2022, part of their planning includes what new items to add to the food and beverage menus. Keeping up with trends to satisfy guests’ food cravings is important, but offering the longtime staple items that guests look forward to year after year, at an affordable price, is also vital.

Food and Beverage Associate Juann Jamerson of Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier. Funnel cakes are the most popular treat for the park.

“Bacon has been trending on menus for the last several years, but with the cost of bacon doubling this summer, I don’t expect to see as many restaurants adding bacon to as many foods as before,” said Paul Garnica, director of Food and Beverage at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, Calif. “Our guests want food that looks and tastes great. No one wants to get a dry burger that’s been under a heat lamp or sweating in a box. Guests like seeing their burger come of the grill and on to a buttery, toasted bun, then straight into their hands. A burger that looks as good as it tastes is a great thing to take a photo of and share with your friends on Instagram – really make them jealous they didn’t join the trip.” In 2021, their best sellers were a park staple: “Here at the Santa Monica Pier, funnel cakes continue to be our most popular treat. From noon until close, we will have a line of people waiting for our fresh made-to-order funnel cakes,” he said.

Popular menu items from Kennywood Park. In 2021, Potato Patch fries, which are topped with melted cheese and bacon, and funnel cakes, were best-sellers, a park official said.

Edward Reams, director of In-Park Revenue at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pa., predicts guests will look for more foods that can be eaten on the go. “The trend I see for 2022 are more snack items like turkey legs. Food items guests can purchase and eat while walking. Guests enjoy being able to purchase food quickly and not wait in line for hours as they are eager to experience the park more. As guests enjoy the park, they like to be able to get a beverage quickly so having self-serve beverage machines will make getting refills much quicker,” he said. Kennywood’s best-sellers in 2021 were “Potato Patch fries and funnel cakes. The Potato Patch features fresh cut fries served with melted cheese and bacon on top. One can choose other flavored seasoning such as onion, garlic, BBQ, salt or ketchup. Fresh fried funnel cake with fresh strawberries in the summer, pumpkin spice funnel cakes for the fall or plain with hot apples or cherries. For the holiday season we will be adding fried cheesecake with topping choices of cherries, caramel or chocolate.”

Paul Garnica, director of food and beverage, Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier. “Our guests want food that looks and tastes great,” Garnica said.

Russell Wintner, president of Memphis Kiddie Park in Brooklyn, Ohio, said they sell more of the timeless “kiddie” favorites like hot dogs and ice cream over trendy food items. “Our best-sellers this year were basic hot dogs, and novelty ice cream on a stick which featured characters like Hello Kitty and Spongebob,” he said. “In our case, I expect the food trends to be the same in 2022.” Rabekah Benjamin, concession stand and ticket booth manager at Bartlesville Kiddie Park in Bartlesville, Okla., said, “We are looking at adding in some different types of candy. We are also researching an ice cream machine that makes chocolate, vanilla, and chocolate/vanilla twist. For 2021 our best-selling items were snow cones, walking tacos, cotton candy, and of course classic vanilla ice cream.”
Food and beverage operators consider guest feedback and industry trends when planning restaurant and concession items. “We listen to the customers – that’s number one. We look at what sells and what doesn’t sell – that’s number two,” Wintner said. “We also attend trade shows, like IAAPA’s, and see what kinds of new things they’re promoting.” Benjamin said, “We try to keep our concession menu up to date and also take the public’s opinion about what things they’d like to see.” She added Bartlesville Kiddie Park will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2022, and families have visited from several different states. The Park’s board is looking forward to bringing in new offerings and improving the park’s facilities to mark this important milestone.

Edward Reams, Kennywood Park’s director of In-Park Revenue. For the holiday season, the park will offer fried cheesecake with topping choices of cherries, caramel or chocolate, he said.

Garnica said at Santa Monica Pier, their food offerings are largely longtime guest favorites: “We don’t look to see what’s popular on the food blogs or what’s going to make a splashy menu feature. We strive to provide our guests with the dishes and treats they and their families are most looking forward to on their trip to Santa Monica. That means serving small-batch Lappert’s ice cream, items that can be enjoyed while walking around the pier or in line for a ride, like freshly made Wetzel’s Pretzels, and offering a menu with options for the whole family.”

Kennywood Park’s Austin Walsh holding a menu item. The park’s guests like to purchase food quickly and return to the attractions, an official said.

Reams said due to trends’ constantly changing nature, he makes a point of staying current with what’s going on in the industry through various means. “I enjoy following food shows, websites, magazines, and food bloggers. I try to relate items which I think would fit into our park on a daily basis or during a certain time of the year like fall or Christmas versus during our core season,” he said. “It is interesting to note how one can be inspired by someone’s take on a product and you can add your own twist. My wife has so many cookbooks and magazines that she shares with me for ideas. Some of my ideas/concepts over the years have come from church socials, fairs, festivals, and other food events.”

Popular menu items from Kennywood Park. In 2021, Potato Patch fries, which are topped with melted cheese and bacon, and funnel cakes, were best-sellers, a park official said.

Food managers said the best way to boost food sales is provide fresh, tasty, and – when appropriate – unique items at an affordable price. Many guests look forward to purchasing the “park foods” they may only enjoy once or twice a year; others look for the latest twist on a classic staple. Guest feedback is critical for developing menus. Wintner said due to their core market – children under 12 – they have had success with a limited menu focusing on kid-friendly favorites. “We’ve lessened the choices, which speeds up the number of transactions, and it has made a big difference,” Wintner said. “We’re kind of unique in that we just have one concession stand, so people don’t have a ton of food places throughout the park.” Reams stressed the importance of fresh ingredients, appealing presentation, and training the food service team to execute each item to a high standard. “Guests want to know and see the quality of the food they are going to eat, which makes the presentation even more important. Since most guests eat with their eyes first, the presentation/image must be of high quality and inviting,” he said. “Training of team members is very important in this area. They need to know and understand what they are preparing is of quality. Working side by side with team members is very important for leadership to understand and do. This develops trust and confidence in the team member for them to take pride in their jobs.”

Christina Parrish of Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pa., photographed with a meal option. An official with the park predicted more foods that can be eaten on the go will become popular.

Eating is a sensory experience, so food should look and smell as good as it tastes. “People want to see the food they are buying. For example, meals served from Beach Burger here on the pier come out in a basket – the burgers are half-wrapped but open and visible to the customer – not served in bag or box all wrapped up. The burgers are cooked and topped to order. When one of our guests walks through the dining plaza holding a couple of hot cheeseburgers full of crisp lettuce and melty cheese—that gets people’s attention and drives more customers to our window,” Garnica said, adding, “Things get even better when guest can smell the fresh cooked food – nothing like the smell of buttered popcorn wafting through the amusement park on a warm afternoon.” Benjamin said they do their best to offer visitors discounts on food items. “We try and keep things fun and announce different sales towards the end of the night like half price popcorn and cotton candy. Instead of throwing it out or just giving it away, when people hear half price they tend to come back just to buy some,” she said. “We also keep a second popcorn machine right next to the one that pops the popcorn. We bag the popcorn and then bag it and put it in the other popcorn machine to use the heat lamp to keep the popcorn warm and fresh.”

Russell Wintner, park president, driving a train at Memphis Kiddie Park in Brooklyn, Ohio. Timeless favorites for children such as hot dogs and ice cream sell best at the park, Wintner said.