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NICA Executive Director: Food Trends Driving People To & Through The Fair
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The National Independent Concessionaires Association(NICA), the leading association representing purveyors of food at fairs, festivals, theme parks and other outdoor events, underwent a comprehensive makeover in 2019, implementing a new strategic plan, restructuring of its governing body and reemphasizing its commitment to its members and to the events and patrons of those events they service. Helming the organization as it navigates through these waters of change is Rey O'Day, who was appointed Executive Director of NICA last year. A member of the organization since the mid-1990s, she was  inducted into the NICA Hall of Fame in 2016 and is a food & beverage veteran and fair food expert, moving from theme park management to the L.A. County Fair, working her way up from operations to Director of Food & Beverage. More recently, her consulting company, Wings of Production, has become a leading guest-service training company, providing educational services for organizations ranging from The Hollywood Bowl to the California Fairs Service Authority. She holds a California Community College Teaching Credential in Dance and a Bachelor's Degree in Business Management and according to her official bio, she “believes the only reason any of us has a job is because we have a customer to serve.” Carnival Warehouse spoke with Ray O'Day to find out about the new direction of NICA but soon the conversation switched to the topic of fair foods and a few of the many trends now shaping what O'Day classifies as one of the main drivers to the gate.

Carnival Warehouse: What is on the NICA agenda for 2022? 

Rey O'Day: We spent 2019 finding our 2020 Vision. Our proudest 2020 moment was to hold our NICA Business Expo and Fare Foods Food Show for approximately 450 participants in-person following all the CDC guidelines. This was possible because of unwavering support from Fare Foods. We were tired of Zoom and the Pandemic had hardly begun.

Next, we used that 2020 vision to “Focus on the Future” in 2021. We continued “Movin' Forward” through refreshing our benefits program by signing a multiyear, fleet agreement  with Goodyear tires and rebuilding our Health Plan using what we had learned from our earlier offering. For our members we introduced a first timer scholarship to encourage attendance at industry educational events and our generous membership made it possible for us to grow our educational scholarship awards. We knew then that the NICA Foundation was on its feet.  

Early in 2022 we realized that while we were trying to Survive the Pandemic, we were already experiencing the signs of Thriving again so our mantra for 2022 is “Thriving while Surviving.”  Our East and West Regional Councils provided huge moral support for each other during the Pandemic so we brought the Mid-West Council on board.  The NICA Sysco Marketplace program is stronger with our new partnership with Entegra, the largest GPO organization in the country, and Sysco the largest food and beverage supplier in the country, working together to improve the bottom line of our members every day.   

The biggest idea on our 2022 agenda is NICA Marketplace where Together, business owners, managers, fair industry leaders, and trade show exhibitors will share Ideas, Networking, Products, and Services for 48 hours. It will take place November 6-8, 2022 at the Tuscany Suites and Casino in Las Vegas, NV. Go to to register. This is one time we hope that what happens in Vegas does NOT stay in Vegas!  

Our Board and Council leadership understands that the only reason we are an organization is because of our Members. Our staff is really a team of Member Service Associates. Our strategic planning is very member focused and that includes updating more ways for members to communicate with each other, and encouraging an increase in the number of communication committees at our fairs. We believe that Together We Can Thrive while Surviving!!

CW: Why do you think fair foods seem to be getting more attention now?

RO: People are taking pictures of food at the fair, sending them to friends, posting on social media. A lot of food sold at fairs is attractive, almost guilt worthy. Sharing food photos is a brand new trend. It's immediate, it tells somebody come to see the food we are sending, look at what I am doing, look at what is happening at the fair. It's encouraging and enticing and that makes food even more popular. The photos look at what we're eating at the fair, that's a great win. Food drives people through the fair, they essentially create their path through the fair based on the food they want to go eat.

CW: What about an actual trend in what fairgoers are eating. What's new to eat at the fair?

RO: If there is one ongoing trend that's fusion. Donuts with s'mores, lobster corn dogs, rice with shrimp, new things that are fused together. Potato waffles. There are a lot of new foods that use all this stuff to make the primary thing then make it more interesting and look differently by putting it with another thing. There's a fusion take on all things, sweet and savory, there's a lot of those choices around. Also niches. There used to be one kind of food, like French Fries. Now we have 20 different kinds of French Fries. We are seeing more options and more niched food. We're creating more options at the fair, not fewer. I am also seeing more different kinds of vehicles, like waffle cones and tortilla cones. We used to walk around with food just on a stick, but we are seeing food on more things that are not a stick. We're seeing more cones, more edible vehicles to carry food. 

CW: Healthier food options have increased at many fairs. Is it just a fad or do you expect it to continue?

RO: There is certainly a trend towards some healthier options because some fairgoers have dietary needs and others seem to have an interest in understanding from where their food comes. A large part of the fair's mission is agricultural education. It appears to me that food concessionaires, food suppliers – whether farmers or companies – and fairs are logical partners in this mission. I have also seen some creative sponsorships around the idea of healthy options. 

CW: What are the traditional fair foods? Which ones seem to be no longer popular and what are some of the new traditions?

RO: The traditional foods – what I call “must haves” – are corn dogs, hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, French Fries, ice cream and beverages. Today I think I would add funnel cake, sausages and turkey legs to the must haves. On the not so popular I would name cotton candy, popcorn, and candied apples. There are definitely some regional favorites like cheese curds, turkey legs, crème puffs, elephant ears, fry bread, tacos, burritos, kabobs, and many styles of BBQ to name a few. Certainly one of the new traditions is to change up/spice up one of the traditional foods in some very tasty, creative ways. Hot flamin' Cheetos seem to be on everything right now, much as bacon has been for a while. That's part of the fun of trends. 

CW: Food trucks at fairs – good or bad?

RO: They are not a moral issue of good or bad. They provide interesting food ideas and options, in most states they have to leave and return to a commissary every day. Volume is not their skill, and they do not like paying rent. 

CW: Many fairs extend their “$1 days” or similar price promotion from gate admission to the food vendors. Do you see this continuing, and how can food vendors best participate in this promotion?

RO: There are a lot of $2 or $3 taste promotions which continue the practice of “grazing” at our fairs, These promotions encourage fairgoers to try new stands and products. I think that will continue.

CW: Many fairs are promoting fair food through a variety of “best of” contests. What contests do you find the most exciting and what sort of advice can you offer in terms of what works best and what to avoid?

RO: There are some very fun contests out there that I think bring good energy and publicity to the fair. They are fun, people enjoy them, and concessionaires enjoy winning. Several aspects come to mind. It's important they happen before or early in the fair, so that gets people arriving for the fair, asking for such and such food that they saw on Facebook or in a newspaper. I've seen people holding newspaper clippings when they come to the fair looking for the winning food, that's why it's important to have it pre-fair or very early in the fair. It's important for fairs to make their contests interactive in some way, shape or form. The judges can be celebrities in the community or season pass holders. Those sorts of choices are about knowing your community. Some fairs do a category every year, one year they do desserts, another year sandwiches, and other year protein, and they rotate the categories every year. Other fairs make it wide open, they ask every vendor to participate and come up with a new item every fair. Some concessionaires love to do that. But I have one warning to fairs. There are some concessionaires who have one, signature product. They do what they do and they do it very well and those owners are not interested in doing something new because it will confuse their menus. Others love trying different products and having new food that will lead people to their stand. Sometimes a new food item will take off and become a new tradition at a fair. But I have a word of caution to fairs, not all concessionaires may want to participate in a contest.

CW: How did the Pandemic change the mobile food industry?

RO: I think the mobile food industry made it through the Pandemic because it was nimble, resilient, and entrepreneurial.  Since the Pandemic, the mobile food industry is doing “more with less” at every touch point...sometimes with much frustration and sometime quite successfully.  What is clear is that the  aforementioned skills are going to be even more important going forward.

As fairs have opened, fairgoers have arrived in droves and in the mood to buy.  We do not know how long that euphoria will last as inflation eats away at disposal income.  Having just paid $6.59 for a gallon of gas, I wonder if the “staycation” won't become popular again. If it does, that will keep fairs in the spotlight as a place to take your family.    

Much has been written about where, how, and why the work force disappeared during the Pandemic, but the difficulty finding labor is still on the lips of everyone with whom I speak. The supply chain of an available work force is broken.  This means owners work their locations more and longer and they have fewer persons to hire for help.  

Going to school teaches young people to show up on a regular basis. Fairs are where many of them have their first job. The Pandemic sent them home and left them mostly without the routines that taught us how to organize our lives.  The result is that a new hire may show up for the first day, but they are not very good at showing up for the next few days consistently. Moreover, the help is untrained and expecting high dollar hourly wages. It is a surprising dilemma, when as business owners we are constantly weighing the value of a person's skills versus how much the position is worth in payroll dollars.   In summary, labor has a new mindset: they want more money (trained or not), they want to work less (and on their own terms), and the overall work ethic has softened. We are grateful for the help that wants to learn, work, and be available when needed.

Because of labor shortages and product chain challenges, many menus have been pared down.  For the same reasons vendors who in the past might have booked five stands at a fair; today have cut back to two or three stands, only to discover that they are able to make the same or better net money with fewer stands.  One of those “I am making a decision to survive and the result is I am thriving” moments.

Price increases are causing angst. Wholesale prices in 2022 are up 10.8% and protein is more than that. Portion size and quality have become factors. How much can be passed on to the guest? As purveyors  and fairs, we are balancing between what is fair and what is necessary. The primary factors in determining prices are cost of goods, labor, and rent. Percentage rent fairs receive more money when the menu prices go up (and they are going to); so perhaps, they would consider helping the equation by lowering the rent percent by a point or two until we move through this.   

During the Pandemic, “touchless payments” swept the nation and  became the new marketing strategy of point-of-sale companies creating some challenging consequences and questions  for fair guests, fairs, and fair vendors. Before I continue about payment methods, I must state that NICA's policy statement is that “Businesses should accept payment from the customer in the method they want  to pay it.” To that I am going to add an opinion alert: let's not forget that Covid is primarily spread through droplets in the air, not by touch, though constant hand washing is always a healthy habit.”

Now we see signs reading “cash only” and “cashless only.”  We say we are an inclusive industry yet “cashless only” pre-qualifies out the customer that is underbanked or unbanked or credit cardless which is about 25% of the adult population.  Less cash means less concern about theft and the violence that can occur around a robbery. Credit card usage seems to have increased at least 20% and the per ticket transactions are higher; yet the service fees are on the rise which raises the cost of doing business. Vendors are expected to accept credit cards from fair guests, but fairs are refusing to accept credit card payment from vendors. We are in a fulcrum moment when they way people make payment is changing.  I suggest we follow the customer on this one and not force them into what is convenient for business, but not necessarily for them. I think that is the definition of the “customer is always right,”  what we call customer service.

Some other business changes that are going to be around for a while are shorter event operating hours, wild swings in wholesale prices, inflated gas prices, abandoning “just in time” concepts, hoarding products, changing routes, tipping policies, insurance coverage exceptions, and products that are in abundance and then disappear only to reappear later.  It is a puzzling time as we integrate the changing phases of Covid into our lives. It is also invigorating.  We are becoming more adaptable, finding efficiencies, delivering solutions, asking new questions, learning when less is more, laughing out loud at the absurdities,  thinking differently and hopefully choosing patience and deep breaths over anger and frustration over what we cannot change and over which we have very little influence.  What I do know is Together We Can…(you add the next phrase).
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