From fried Oreos to fried Twinkies to fried butter, fair food’s not winning any awards when it comes to healthy cuisine. But with millions of Americans flocking to local, county and state fairs every summer—the State Fair of Texas alone attracted 2.4 million people over a 24-day period in 2016—food vendors need to be creative to compete for the biggest slice of the pie. As fair season kicks into full gear, here are six of the cleverest menu ideas we’ve spotted this year, which offer some takeaways for the industry as a whole.
1. Put unexpected savory spins on sweets
Chicken and waffles might now be a standard combination, but there’s a reason it sells so well: that appealing overlap of sweet and savory. Jane Harris, owner of The Best Around’s concession stand at the Florida State Fair, told the Hawkeye newspaper her best-selling food item is the mashup Cheesy Fried Enchilada funnel cake. The riff on the traditional funnel cake, which is typically covered in powdered sugar, is topped with white queso and chorizo.
2. Lend support to a cause
Fairs, too, are taking a cue from restaurants capitalizing on philanthropy to attract empathetic diners. Emergency services EMS-Post 53 in Darien, Conn., hosts an annual Memorial Day Food Fair in support of necessities like CPR classes, ambulance maintenance and patient care. Local restaurants supply items like pulled pork, bratwurst and seafood salad.
In Austin, Texas, the Central Texas Food Bank stole a fair theme for its 21 County Fair, a reference to the 21 counties served by the bank. With carnival-style games plus food and drinks from local restaurants, the fair also is a chance for the bank to show off its new facility on the city’s southeast side.
3. Guarantee revenue with preordered tickets
Since variety is the spice of life when it comes to fair food, it’s easy to drop more than a few dollars during a single trip. This year, the New York State Fair introduced a Fair Food Four Pack, a ticket deal designed to give diners more bang for their buck. The $15 packs, which are available for purchase online, include four $5 vouchers for participating food vendors, four tickets for a State Fair Baked Potato and four milk coupons. Three thousand ticket packs are available, with a limit of two per customer.
4. Establish strong branding
Plenty of fair-goers have one can’t-miss food booth in mind when they come through the gates. One such booth is the Minnesota State Fair’s The Original Deep Fried Cheese Curds stand, a Midwestern favorite for 42 years. The iconic yellow booth has even served as the backdrop for wedding and engagement photos, Minneapolis’ NBC 11 reports.
But when owners Dick and Donna Mueller decided they were ready to retire this year, the fair denied their request to transfer the stand to their son. Despite a potential lawsuit and the vocal protests of fans, including celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, the campaign to #SaveTheCurds has so far been unsuccessful.
5. Shake up the competition
We’ve heard of pie and pickle contests at the fair—but cocktail competitions? Adding to its bloody mary and old fashioned face-offs, the Wisconsin State Fair this year will host a sangria competition. Sponsored by the Wisconsin Winery Association, all sangria entries must incorporate Wisconsin wines, and winners receive certificates for bottles of Wisconsin wine.
6. Get detailed when highlighting local fare
The Indiana State Fair really wants diners to come hungry—this year’s theme is Wonderful World of Food. A different local product or cuisine will be highlighted every day of the fair, which runs Aug. 4-20. While enjoying honey, mint, melon and other items, fairgoers can visit the Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture exhibit, organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.