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Healthy Fair Food Trend: Seeking New Customers, Fairs Expand Menus -- Part I

4/29/2015

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of Matt Cook

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Don't worry, no one is taking away traditional fair foods like corn dogs, funnel cakes or deep friend innovations, but healthy foods are fast gaining traction as part of the selection at fairs throughout the country. While this trend seems to appear every few years, this current manifestation seems more widespread as fairs seek to change their image of just offering unhealthy food.

Far from existing in a social vacuum, fairs are closely aligned with their communities, and public awareness about the rise in obesity and other health issues related to diet and nutrition is higher than ever before. But part of the fun of a fair is the fried and fattening foods that are part of tradition. Fairs now find themselves having to both offer the fun foods while also cateriPhoto By Matt Cookng to healthier palettes. 

How widespread a trend or quickly the growth pattern is are unclear, and only anecdotal information is available, but the fact is more fairs seem to be including what can be considered healthier menu options at the fair food.

More Options
As part of her job, every year Marla J. Calico, CFE, Chief Operating Officer of International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE), visits dozens of fair every year. Fair foods are not known for being healthy - in fact, the entire appeal is that for the day fairgoers ignore their diet - but for someone in the Calico's position, she simply visits too many fairs to always eat the corn dogs, much less burgers between donuts or deep-fried gummy bears. 

Even when not at a fair, she watches her diet, tries to eat healthy and limit the amount of red meat. Such a goal was near impossible at a fair, however, until last year when she noticed "I was able to find more healthy food options at almost every fair I went to, and they were easier to find. You didn't have to search and search. This is strictly anecdotally speaking, I can't say if this is a trend industry-wide."

Nonetheless, what once seemed anomalous is now more commonplace, something Calcio chalks up industry ingenuity. "I think more fairs are responding to social trends, and it may be more of a combination of social trends, and of fairs being savvy and seeing a business opportunity that there is a segment of the community to appeal to. They may be looking ways to appeal to new demographics." 

Business Concerns
That business opportunity many not only be about customer relations, but sponsor relations. Fairs are expanding their roster of sponsors, and some sponsors may be acutely aware the downside of being known for deep fried everything. "Hospitals and healthcare systems are becoming major sponsors with fairs, and these parties are concerned about promoting a well-balanced diet," she said. "As part of the deal, some fairs may be looking for ways to increase their healthier offerings."
"More fairs are offering healthier options," said industry veteran Jim Sinclair, Deputy General Manager of the Minnesota State Fair, although he is hesitant to declare it a full-scale trend. But one reason is that the fairs serve a community, and those fairs can be as diverse as populations they serve, which sort of limits the scope of any trend. Fairs may be offering healthier options, but doing so in a variety of ways. 

According to Sinclair, the Minnesota State Fair generally "stayed away from the "fried food mania, we are not known for bizarre foods." Which is not to say you cannot find deep friend items at the fair, but because of this lack of emphasis, there isn't as much of a push for healthy options to off-set potentially negative publicity.

Nonetheless, public awareness about diet is an unavoidable issue. The fair recently began offering lists of food vendors who offer Gluten-Free items. "We've had this list about three or four years, and it started because of input from the Celiac Center of Minnesota," said Sinclair. "The numbers of people who want gluten free has grown, and so have the vendors who have this option."

The Minnesota State Fair gluten policy - which is about public awareness, not the fair mandating vendors sell gluten-free products - indicates how complex the issue of fair food is. Healthier eating is not just about calories and the food pyramid. "We are now looking at addressing people with food allergies, and how we can make fairgoers aware of which vendors address those options," said Sinclair. 

A fair does not want to turn its entire food concessions into a bland example of nutritional excellence, but as awareness of diet at all levels grows, fairs are complying with social trends. "It's definitely becoming more of a factor," said Sinclair. "We all depend on sponsors and work with municipalities, and there is more pressure to be aware of food allergies, gluten, and of course diet and healthier eating."

New York Veganism
This year, the New York State Fair will offer a first, a Vegan Vendor. The fair put out a call for this specialty food - Veganism is considered - or at least used to be considered -- an extreme form of vegetarianism, although now it essentially means no meat or dairy products. A final choice has not been made, but within three weeks of the posting of the solicitation, "we had a solid half dozen proposals," said Troy Waffner, Fair Manager, New York State Fair. "I was hoping for a good response, but I was unsure. I am very satisfied with the response." 

The candidates were a mix of existing vendors who are looking to branch out as well as new vendors, including a Vegan Restaurant in Syracuse - "they do a great business and were bombarded with requests to become part of the fair," said Waffner.

An important distinction about the New York State Fair search for a Vegan trailer is not simply offering healthier foods at a fair, it is about targeting a specific demographic heretofore neglected by the fair. "We have food vendors who offer healthy options, like a vegetarian wrap, but they were mixed with other food and there was a demand for a true vegan option," he said. "We are trying to find a Kosher vendor too. This is about appealing to segments of the population, such as vegans or serious vegetarians, who do not come to the fair. These are not the people who come to the fair every year and have a doughnut burger, it's a new audience." 

Waffner admits that having a significant vegan audience to tap may be not be applicable to fairs nationwide, healthier food options is a trend to watch. "It's a building trend," he said. "Obesity is a real problem, and if fairs are seen as being part off that problem, it might move people away from fairs. If they understand we offer not just deep fried sausage, but cater to vegans and vegetarians as well, "

In addition, having healthier options Waffner said, gives the fair "more points" not just with health agencies, but agricultural agencies - such as Department of Agriculture and Markets (AGM), which also happens to have authority over the fair. "The fair falls around harvest time. New York has great produce and having a Vegan vendor also promotes that." 

Old Trend/New Trend
Even though California is home to the San Mateo County Fair and the Marin County Fair, two fairs with the most rigorous healthy food policies, Stephen J. Chambers, Director, Western Fair Association, is skeptical about how widespread a trend it will become and points out that talk about expanding typical fair menus into healthier varieties is nothing new. "Healthier food options have been part of the conversation since I've been in the fair business," he said. 

Chambers remembers that way back in the Reagan era, fair organizers and food vendors tried jumping on the then new Salad Bar bandwagon, "people came to some fairs with salad trailers, without much success."

He added that the conversation was more "food diversity, not just more healthy food, but more ethnic food too. Health considerations were not a driving factor." 
A few years ago, Trampas Porter, Director of Purchasing, Fair Foods Corporation, also noticed a trend where food vendors started selling healthier options. "It failed miserably with customers. Most fairgoers don't come to the fair to eat healthy. 

He added, "But I am seeing more vendors selling healthier items again, so we'll see."

His colleague, Audrey Poole, Vice President of Business Development, Fair Foods Corporation, said this current spread of healthier fair foods is evolving differently than past attempts. "There is more health consciousness today and that is pushing this trend," said Poole. "If you are a concessionaire, trying to get into all areas, and offering say salads, to make it more successful, you need a specialty line and probably an individual trailer. You want to be a specialty vendor. It might be more likely that it us the existing vendor at the fair who sees that niche and creates a healthy food stand because he knows the customers." 

To Be Continued..

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