Healthier dining options may be a trend at the nation's fast food restaurants, but comfort foods are making a last stand at carnivals, county fairs and amusement parks.
“Laugh your troubles away” was the indelible slogan of Chicago’s iconic amusement park, Riverview. According to consumer spending trends surveyed by Spectrem’s Millionaire Corner, “Eat your troubles away,” might be the 21st century equivalent. Despite stepped up efforts to raise awareness about healthier eating and advancements in the fast food industry to add less calorie-busting fare to their menus, comfort foods still rule at America’s carnivals, fairs and festivals.
The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events is still crunching the financials on its recently concluded Taste of Chicago, but it did release its 2014 “Fun Food Facts” recap of the four-day festival. The estimated 1.1 million visitors sampled from more than 300 menu items dished out by 64 restaurants and food trucks. What fared best?
- Eli’s Cheesecake: 35,000 slices of its signature cheesecake.
- Gold Coast Dogs: 7,200+ hot dogs
- Lou Malnati’s Pizza: 15,000 sausage pizza slices/18,000 cheese pizza slices
- Churro Factory: 20,000 churros and 10,000 funnel cakes
- Billy Goat Tavern (made famous on “Saturday Night life”) grilled up to 7,000 “cheeseborgers”
- The Fudge Pot: 2,000 pounds of fudge and 6,400 chocolate strawberries
- Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs: 10,000 pounds of rib tips.
It was not all artery clogging menu items. One outlet served 7,560 ears of corn, while another restaurant served 21,960 slices of watermelon.
The most popular fare at Six Flags Great America are more “Let’s roll” than “Let’s move.” According to consumer spending trends tracked by the company, the best-selling culinary concessions are:
- Chicken strips
- Waffle fries
- Funnel cakes
- Giant soft pretzels
- Dippin dots
At the nation’s carnival and “mobile amusement” venues, cotton candy, corn dogs and candied apples remain popular staples (and that’s only the C’s), but is there a change afoot? Carnivals are primarily family businesses, Robert Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association told Spectrem’s Millionaire Corner. Many operations, he noted, are on their second, third, or fourth generation of owners. “These are young people, college-educated and good business people,” he said.
And when it comes to broadening the scope of culinary offerings, he said, many are adding healthier options such as gluten-free fare (I died a little inside when I wrote that). Could healthy food catch on at carnivals? That might take a miracle. Eddie Miracle, owner of Miracle Amusements in Ohio, reported that French fries and funnel cakes are his operation’s most popular food items. (And that’s only the F’s).
Related story: Wealthy Americans hungry for value taking a bigger bite out of fast food
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.