After seeing the fattest pig in the state, checking out blue-ribbon-winning pies, and enduring a spine-tingling ride on the tilt-a-whirl, what’s left to do at the state fair? Eat, of course. There are many reasons that state and county fairs continue to grow in popularity, but their unique mix of food is certainly a prime driver, as they continue to offer hungry fairgoers a perfect blend of the beloved, the novel and the (deeply) deep-fried.
While many state fairs insist they’re the biggest or the best, Minnesota lays claim to an important culinary status: “We’re number one for food consumption,” says Dennis Larson, Food & Beverage Manager for the Minnesota State Fair. Larson’s event sells more than $40 million in food during its 12 days of operation. New offerings this year include candied bacon doughnut sliders, SPAM® sushi and deep-fried grilled cheese bites. Here are Larson’s top five suggestions for ways operators can bring that “fair feeling” to their own operations.
Deep fried, pickle-stuffed Twinkies may get a lot of attention (and a few bites), but Larson says that tried-and-true offerings tend to rake in the most bucks. “Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and corn dogs (in all their permutations) are our top two sellers,” he reports.
Takeaway: Familiar comfort foods can be your biggest sellers.
2. Sell the experience
Minnesota’s State Fair cookie vendor mixes dough on-site and pulls cookies fresh from on-site ovens. “People love to think, ‘that’s my cookie being baked right now.’ It’s like the ultimate permission to raid the cookie jar,” he says.
Takeaway: Open your kitchen when you can, serve dishes “hot out of the oven” or in their baking containers, and allow diners to be part of the experience.
3. Cross-over appeal
If you’ve never heard of deep-fried cheese curds, don’t worry. They’re Larson’s #4 seller, but they’re fairly rare outside Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now that he’s noticed them popping up on upscale appetizer menus around town, Larson suggests the time may be ripe for a national fried cheese curd phenomenon.
Takeaway: Keep an eye open for a regional specialty that might be a hit with your customers.
4. Local matters
Corn roast sales were up 6 percent at last year’s fair, and their fresh-local story may be part of the appeal. “The ears are grown on a farm 50 miles from the fair, and they’re picked fresh each night and delivered to the fair in the morning.”
Takeaway: If you have a local story to tell, make sure to promote it on your menus, website and marketing.
5. Consider condiments
Everyone loves to dip their fair treat in something rich and creamy, which is why so many “Secret Sauces” are part of popular fair offerings. New this year at Minnesota’s State Fair is a fresh chicken tender dish with something the vendor is calling “Bang Bang” sauce. “He won’t tell me the recipe, but I think it’s a mix of mayo, ranch and Sriracha,” Larson opines.
Takeaway: If you’re creating fair-like specials, don’t forget to use Marzetti® dressings and sauces as the base for your own “secret sauce.”