Where Food Is a Big Part of the Fun – Trends in Concessions

By Sara Karnish

Rides and food are the two biggest draws for fair- and festival-goers. As concessionaires look forward to 2022, most are trying out new recipes, adjusting their menus, and getting ready for another year of giving event attendees their annual fix of mouth-watering goodies.
Samantha Bluhm, general manager of Solem Concessions in Rochester, Minn., said, “We have the some of the top offerings that any fair goer would love – cheese curds, fresh cut fries, corn dogs, mini donuts, fresh squeezed lemonade and the addition of funnel cakes, fried Oreos and ice cream,” she said. “In our home state of Minnesota, fresh squeaky cheese curds are a number one seller. We started with those and just continued to add to our menu items. We’ve stuck with the staple items that you would see at any outdoor amusement event – fried food!” In 2022, she said, “One trend that is not under the control of the outdoor amusement industry is shipping issues. In April of 2021 we had ordered packaging for food products and was told that it would be two months out and then it was three months. We finally got our initial order in September of 2021, five months later, after our season was done. I think these issues will carry over to this new year, just due to driver shortages, worker shortages, and manufacturing issues. Overall, the outdoor amusement industry saw one of the better years we’ve had in a while. I can only suspect this is due to COVID and the people wanting to get out of their homes and have some fun.” Bluhm added, “We are building a new concession stand to help meet the demands of our guests at our events. We are adding funnel cakes, fried Oreos and ice cream to our food lineup.”

Guests lined up at Solem Concessions at the Minnesota State Fair. The company is building a new concession that will add funnel cakes, fried Oreos and ice cream to the food selection. 

Kay Kastl, co-owner of Kastl Amusements in Wildomar, Calif., with husband Frank, said comfort foods are a big trend right now. “Many people are looking to relive their childhood and seeking items they remember from their youth. Since COVID shutdown and many items were denied, we had many customers asking for to-go boxes to take home their funnel cakes, deep fried Oreos, churros and cotton candy,” she said. “They were unable to obtain many of these items during shutdown. The customers were so grateful to have these items again, they seemed to purchase more than usual to take home.” Their best-sellers are “funnel cakes, deep-fried Oreos, hand-dipped corn dogs, churros, and cotton candy,” she added. In addition to their regular season, Kastl Amusements has been selected to work with a special event/concert that is connected to the Super Bowl taking place in Los Angeles on February 11 for Shaquille O’Neal.  “They will feature four of our rides and several games at Shaq’s Fun House,” Kastl said.

Kylie and Kalista Kastl of Kastl Amusements. The company’s best-sellers are funnel cakes, deep-fried Oreos, hand-dipped corn dogs, churros, and cotton candy.

Along with the tried-and-true favorites, some event attendees look for more unique or cutting-edge fair foods along the Midway. Chris Taylor, co-owner of Waffle Chix and the Pioneer Wagon concession in Milford, Iowa, with sons Spenser Taylor and Tanner Taylor, said they are always coming up with new flavor combinations for their core product—seasoned white meat chicken encased in a waffle on a stick, best served with maple syrup and Frank’s Red Hot sauce, Taylor advised. “We [Pioneer Wagon] received the People’s Choice at the Oklahoma State Fair for our rattlesnake corn dog,” he said. “This year we’re introducing an alligator corn dog.” Waffle Chix’s creative offerings have gotten positive recognition. Their brownie waffle on a stick (brownie wrapped in waffle batter and sprinkled with powdered sugar) was pictured in People magazine; the company has also appeared on the TV show Carnival Eats several times. “We try to be creative with new product,” Taylor said. “That’s the big thing each year—what are we going to do for a new product? I think we are the only ones in the country who do rattlesnake corn dogs. We have our 2023 item picked out for Pioneer Wagon. It’s been enough to keep our creative juices flowing. We literally have a running list of new ideas we’ve tried. We will maybe change an ingredient and make it work.”

Kastl Amusements’ Venancio Sanchez making funnel cakes. This year, the company is offering additional fresh toppings for the confection, including peaches, strawberries, and blueberries, all available with whipped cream.

Elephant ears remain the standout seller and core product for Ibison Concessions & Catering by Festival Foods in Vicksburg, Mich. Misty Ibison, co-owner with husband Russ, said last year their new offering of chicken strips “took off hugely for us for some reason—maybe because people were having a hard time finding chicken in the stores? Chicken strips were a huge menu option. We’re in the process of building another concession trailer that will feature chicken strips, French fries, and Italian sausage. We’re adding to more of the ‘meat-y’-type foods to broaden our offerings. We use a type of chicken strip that’s very hard to get—2021 was probably our toughest year when it came to getting products. We’re broadening the category a bit, but still focusing on what sells best for us—elephant ears and funnel cakes. We have several units that go out for each,” she explained. One industry-wide trend Ibison has noticed is more events being staged in smaller communities, not just in and around large cities. “People seem to be staying more local when it comes to events. We have a lot of small towns that never had festivals before who are trying to put on their own hometown shows where they didn’t do that before. People are trying to give families a destination where they can go, get fair food, have some activities. That’s kind of where it’s going,” she said. “People feel like they have enough of a budget that they can get out and do something, but not take that big trip. We’re doing more things like Friday Night Food Trucks or Movie Drive-Ins in little towns near our city. Last year we went to several drive-in theaters where we hadn’t done anything like that before.”
Kastl Amusements will be expanding their operation in 2022: “Our plans for the 2022 season are to continue with our traveling carnival in Arizona and California and focus on smaller festivals and fairs to bring our entertainment to towns for their hometown celebrations. The new items we are adding to our concession is additional fresh toppings to our funnel cakes, like peaches, strawberries, and blueberries with a generous topping of whipped cream. Another item we are planning to introduce is stuffed churros. Popular churro fillings are caramel, Bavarian cream, and strawberry. We tried this last season at limited events and the caramel-stuffed churro was very popular,” Kastl said. “In 2022, Kastl Amusements is growing their operation by adding another concession that will feature deep-fried chicken on a stick, Blooming Onions and spiral fries. We believe that the ‘comfort foods’ will be another huge hit this year due to our customers looking for familiarity and great Carnival Eats at their local hometown event.”
Like every other business, concessionaires had to adapt their operations in response to the COVID pandemic. Taylor said because of already-stringent health and hygiene requirements, Waffle Chix didn’t have to change much about how they ran their business. “Our biggest adjustment was 80 to 90 percent of our events were canceled over several months, so we lost that revenue,” he explained. “We would follow any local mandates. Looking back on it, it seems like we made a lot of adjustments, but it’s difficult to put our fingers on them. As far as the operations of the trailers themselves, we had to do very little because the health requirements are so stringent—we just did more of what we were already doing.”

Guests photographed with Solem Concessions for cheese curds and mini-donuts at the Minnesota State Fair. Cheese curds are best-selling in the company’s home state of Minnesota.

Ibison said their operation went almost completely contactless. “Everything is pretty much all hands-off. About 90 percent of our payments are credit cards. Everything is self-swiping—customer will come up, we take their order, we have our own keypads, if everything looks OK, customer will enter the payment. If a customer wants to pay cash, we have someone who just takes cash. We’re not physically at the same screen with the customer—our POS systems have completely changed.” She added, “We used to have pumpers—everything went to packets and single-serve use. Everything is a little bit different where we’ve gone to single-use things.” Ibison was also forced to close her operation for a few months early in the pandemic, so she got creative to keep revenue coming in. She set up one of her larger trailers in her front yard (which was eventually moved to a piece of commercial property due to zoning regulations) and started a drive-through concession service: “customers pull up, order at the window, pay by credit cards in the machine on a table, push everything out. Everything was all hands off. We make everything to order. We continue to do that in the wintertime. In 2021 we did that for four months until our season got started,” she explained.

Of Kastl Amusements in Wildomar, Calif., a close look at this photograph shows Ron Knapp, manager, filling condiments, and Kylie and Kalista Kastl working the event. The owners said comfort foods are trending right now.

While concessionaires continue to develop their menu offerings due to the nature of the industry and customers’ changing preferences, some say weathering the pandemic-related storm was a positive for their business. Some of the changes, such as additional income streams incorporated out of necessity or faster means of delivering the products, will remain a fixture in the business, while others may follow the cyclical nature of trends and be phased out.

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