Alongside the midway and entertainment, fair food is cited as one of the top three reasons to go to the fair. The Wisconsin State Fair has long publicized its diverse array of fair cuisine. Its signature item – the iconic Original Cream Puff - sold at the Fair since 1924 – sells an estimated 350,000 per year. The Wisconsin Bakers Association, who operates the Cream Puff Bakery in the Original Cream Puff Pavilion, also operates two additional locations in Fair Park. Cream puff mania actually begins a week before the fair, where in 2018 they held the third annual Cream Puff 5K, a fundraising event which benefits the Wisconsin State Fair Foundation.
Cream Puffs may be paramount, but the Wisconsin food promotions were not limited to the most well-known delicacy. For the past several years the fair has showcased small Wisconsin food businesses either just starting out or with annual sales under $500,000 with the Grand Champion Eats & Treats Competition, offering “bragging rights, ribbons and cash prizes” in more than 10 categories, including: Fruits and Vegetables (pesto, pie filling, dried fruits, tomato sauces, and garlic); Thyme of Fun (herb infused dry mixes, blends, spice blends, dip mixes, etc.); Popcorn & Popcorn Snack (flavored, coated and/or shaped creations made from popped Wisconsin popcorn)
In addition, actual Wisconsin State Fair food gets the local media spotlight with the Sporkies, presented by the Journal Sentinel, where fair food vendors vie for one of four Golden Spork trophies. The competition includes several rounds, paring down to four from a reported 31 entries. Fairgoers are encouraged to participate in judging during the fair by sampling all of the Sporkies entries and voting via social media for their favorite and the entry with the most attendee votes received the Sporkies trophy for Fairgoers’ Fave. The Sporkies features Wisconsin celebrities, such as Emmy Award-winning “Wisconsin Foodie” host Kyle Cherek , who moderated a panel of celebrity judges, the Journal Sentinel’s award-winning food editor Nancy Stohs, Super Bowl Champion LeRoy Butler, and Milwaukee radio veteran Steve Palec.
But in the spirit of too much never being enough, the Wisconsin State Fair topped off its food offering with a first ever the first-ever Cheese Curd-Eating Championship. Wisconsin long has had the reputation as the Cheese State, so it is more than fitting that its state fair would be home to the world record in the cheese curd-eating discipline.
“We are excited to announce the addition of the Cheese Curd Eating Championship as the newest can’t-miss event during this year’s State Fair,” said Kristi Chuckel, Communications Director, Wisconsin State Fair Park. “There is no better place to unite cheese lovers and competitive eaters!”
The event was conducted in conjunction with Major League Eating, an organization promoting professional eating contests. International competitive eating champion Joey Chestnut as well as other top- ranking competitive eating athletes were brought in to be part of the inaugural competition. The Wisconsin State Fair Dairy Promotion Board donated 125 lbs. of cheese curds. According to Chuckel, the genesis of the competition began with Major League Eating, who approached the fair for its first cheese curd eating contest. Eating contests were not new to the fair – small, community-oriented cream puff eating contests have long been part of the fair – but this was the first professional, world class consumption event. “It made sense to hold the first cheese curd eating competition in Wisconsin,” said Chuckle. “The media was so excited to cover Joey Chestnut, and there was a real swarm around the event.”
Competitive Curd eating brought attention to the overall fair and shone a brighter spotlight on the food offerings of the fair. The Wisconsin State Fair is one of the premier fairs in the Midwest, and the question they face is more maintaining what has been a very strong run. Attendance was about 1 percent higher than 2017 said Chuckel, which included the second highest recorded daily attendance of more than 200,000. It was also the sixth year running of attendance breaking the 1 million mark.
Weather was a factor, with two days of rainy weather – although not total washouts – and an imposing heat wave the second weekend of the fair. Another potential impediment was an increase in admissions of $2, which was part of a five year plan and the first increase in three years. “Our attendance was up and has been steady. We really can’t fit too many people and we don’t want to compromise that experience. I really can’t say if the economy is better, but our attendance was up and spending on rides, games and food were up.”
A healthier economic situation plus fairgoer loyalty helped the higher admission costs be taken in stride. “People understand that our prices rise to keep up with inflation. Our biggest costs are personnel, but the increase not only helped off-set wage increases but increased security for safety reasons. We added metal detectors and extra staffing.”
This year’s marketing tagline featured clever wordplay – Make Your Day WonderFair. “We used words similar to the holiday season. The fair revolves around the idea of taking a break from everyday life, like a holiday. Instead of seeing what you see all the time, come to the fair and see something new.”
The advertising mix was similar to 2017, although typical with trends typical of current fair marketing, Chuckel pointed out they had less print and radio and more digital and social media promotions. The fair also eschewed illustrations in its imaging, relying mainly on photography and video – most of which was shot during last year’s event with the intention of building the current marketing campaign.
The other difference was an expanded advertising outreach, going beyond the Milwaukee market and more heavily into outlying markets, such as Madison, Green Bay and Rockford (Illinois). In convincing consumers in those areas that attending the celebration of everything Wisconsin would “Make Your Day WonderFair, the fair did increase their radio presence and also targeted them through social media analytics. “The fair is weather dependent, our goal is to reach people in other markets who haven’t come to the fair or haven’t come in a while.”
The fair’s independent midway – Spincity, featured 50 rides and 30 games, a similar footprint to 2017. New rides included Zipper and Twin Flip by Skerbeck Entertainment and a Drop Tower by Mitchell Brothers, Top grossing rides included ( Kiddie Rides) – Puppy Express – Prime Pacific; Raiders – Roses Rides; and Wacky Shack Kiddie Fun House – International Attractions and (Adult Rides) Galaxy Roller Coaster – Reithoffer Shows, Inc.; Waveswinger – FairRide Entertainment; and New York, NY – FairRide Entertainment, LLC. The fair contracts with 30 ride and game operators. New operators this year were Skerbeck Entertainment and Mitchell Brothers.
“The advantage to managing our own midway is the control it allows us to have,” said Shari Black, CFE, Senior Director of Event Sales and Services, Wisconsin State Fair. “Not only do we select the very best rides, we also control the finances, public safety, layout, electrical and ride inspections during our event. By doing all of this it allows us to provide a great experience for our patrons.”
The concert lineup for the fair was very successful according to Chuckel, with a sellout by fair favorite, country superstar Reba McEntire. Other standouts included Montgomery Gentry, Cole Swindell, Foreigner, Alice Cooper, the Happy Together Tour and Wisconsin’s own roots rocking sons, the BoDeans.
The talent buying environment was more challenging this year due to a marked increase in local competition. “We have a big new entertainment venue in Milwaukee, the FISERV FORUM (New Milwaukee Bucks Arena),” said Chuckel. “They have booked a lot of concerts in the past year, and this is just one of many entertainment venues in Milwaukee that we are always competing with for talent.”