Frying All the Way to the Bank: Inside the Battle for Bigger, Badder State Fair Food
The vendors behind such creations as funnel-fried bacon on a stick and hot beef sundaes hustle in the offseason to invent—or steal—the next headline-generating fair food, all in service of generating buzz and a bump in their profit margin.
Jason Duncan eats a 15" Big Dog at the Minnesota State Fair from the Big Dog Corndogs booth. All photos by Jeanna Duerscherl.
Deep fryers sizzle as the whoops and hollers of children flung by midway machines fill the air.
Crowds part as I walk through the Iowa State Fair's gauntlet of primary colors and neon, lofting a pineapple bowl—a hollowed half-pineapple stuffed with rice, pineapple chunks, and Maui pork. As I eat with a plastic fork, at least six different people approach me to ask where I got it. Many more simply stare.
That's exactly the kind of response that Diamond Jack's co-owner Tami Benoit intended when she designed the pineapple bowl over the winter. Her other new creation for 2016 was ice cream nachos—cinnamon sugar chips covered with cinnamon ice cream, hot fudge, caramel, bits of chocolate, strawberries, nuts, whipped cream, and a cherry on top—a concoction that finished among the top three in the fair's new food competition.
Diamond Jack's is but one of hundreds of food vendors vying for media buzz and the accompanying new food revenue bump that's become a core part of the 2016 state fair experience.
Vendors court customers with eye-popping displays and ever more outlandish food products, whether it's funnel-fried-bacon-on-a-stick, all-in-one cups stuffed with beef, mashed potatoes, and gravy, or s'mores sundaes.
"There seems to still be a trend towards the fried food freak show, whatever you can put on a stick and batter and fry it to get some novelty or media appeal," says Dennis Larson, license administration manager at the Minnesota State Fair, which vies with Texas for the claim of the largest food fair in the country. "Hopefully Minnesota is taking lead on moving away from that. We still have quality fun food, but we'd rather have something with some merit to it, that will have some legs and be taken seriously."
These mad food scientists hustle in the offseason to invent—or steal—the next headline-generating fair food, all in service of generating buzz and a bump in their profit margin. If a new product lands right with the public zeitgeist and the vendor can meet demand, it can propel the business for a few years. If it proves to have staying power, it can keep a vendor afloat for decades. Some fair inventions have crossed over into mainstream retail. Besides corndogs, of course, Larson claims that Tom Thumb Donuts invented mini-doughnuts at the Minnesota State Fair in the late 1940s. Now, mini-doughnuts can be found in every convenience store across America.
In August, corporate snack giant Hostess Brands began marketing frozen deep-fried Twinkies as part of a collaboration with Walmart.
Meanwhile, state fairs continue to midwife stunt foods into existence through gastronomic experimentation. Lance and Tami Benoit, for example, reconsider their menu every year, using their winter off-season to brainstorm ideas for new products and twists on old classics.
"We vacation a lot, and sometimes you see something that just trips a trigger," Tami says. "Sometimes it also goes with what we already have. In the winter, we lay out a picture of every food on a tri-fold board with the menu typed out next to it. It looks like a crime scene, with different colored post-it notes with ideas we have and have had in the past."
John Mortimer, who just concluded his 32nd year at Iowa State Fair selling food as Beef Promotions of Iowa, found success in 2006 with the hot beef sundae, a mix of mashed potatoes, gravy and beef in a cup. He launched the sundae on a lark, only for it to become his signature product.
"That was not anything we thought would go over that well," Mortimer says. "Somebody saw a picture where somebody had taken a parfait glass and put some mashed potatoes and gravy and beef on it. We took it and just expanded it 100 times."
Mortimer registered the item with the Iowa Beef Industry Council, which theoretically provides ten years of product protection. In reality, however, successful new foods quickly get picked up by other vendors looking for the next big thing. The beef sundae and its variants, for example, can be found around the country.
Not every new item is a hit. A few years ago, Diamond Jack's dedicated a stand to panini sandwiches, only to pull them after only a few days because they sold so poorly. Mortimer tried and failed selling prairie oysters, a.k.a. bull testicles.
Other products, like fried butter, catch fire for a year or two and then disappear. The real trick is to debut an item that has staying power. In the world of Midwest state fairs, many look to the 2001 debut of the deep-fried candy bar as a pivotal moment that forever changed the fried-food game.
"In the business, you're always looking for something different, but it doesn't come along very often," says Jeff Beaver of Old Style Foods. "A friend of mine was at a stand and tried a deep-fried candy bar somewhere in the Midwest, I'm not exactly sure where. That sparked a little something in my mind that got me thinking, and I sort of took it from there."
Beaver is a third-generation fair food vendor. His father sold funnel cakes, and his grandfather ran a fleet of trucks that sold popcorn, candy apples, snow cones, and cotton candy on a circuit in southern North Carolina. Beaver started on his own in the late 80s selling roasted corn and lemonade, and today works a fair circuit that runs seven months of the year.
The fried candy bar supposedly traces its origins to a Scottish tavern that sold deep-fried Mars bars starting in the mid-90s, but the idea was still novel when Beaver came across it in 2000.
"I basically figured out the recipe on my own," Beaver says. "My dad having the funnel cake, that gave us the base for the batter we ended up using."
Beginning in 2001, he offered deep-fried Snickers, Three Musketeers and Milky Way bars at the Minnesota State Fair. The media attention began even before the fair opened. Beaver remembers he sent one of his employees to do an interview with an early morning news crew at 6:30 AM the day the fair opened. By the time he arrived at 7 AM, the line was already 50 people deep.
"We spent our whole week running to deal with those high volumes," Beaver says.
Since then Beaver has added a couple of new items, including deep-fried Oreos and deep-fried Reese's Cups.
"I try to add something new and then if I can get it before someone else," Beaver says. "You just race to it, then you try to run a better operation."
That race to get the next hot item is real and contentious. When I call Craig Gass of Gass Concessions, who Larson recommended "as he has a new corn dog version this year and has had a new food item for the past two years," he's immediately suspicious.
"If I give you all this information, somebody will be against me next year," Gass says.
After a few minutes of me working to convince Gass that MUNCHIES is a legitimate food news channel, he loosens up a bit and explains his anxiety.
"It's very competitive," Gass says. "Three years ago I came up with a new product, and whispered it to a gentleman at a county fair. I'll be darned if it wasn't just a couple of weeks later and someone else had it. That makes me pretty leery. Our recipe for our corn dogs, that type of thing, we hold it tight."
Like Beaver, Gass comes from a family of state fair food vendors. His parents started a restaurant at the Minnesota State Fair in the 1930s, with "sit-down roast beef, chicken dinners, everything made from scratch and served on glass plates with real silverware."
This year, Gass debuted a Minnesota corn dog, with meat by a local sausage maker incorporating blueberries, apples, wild rice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper, wrapped in a batter developed by his parents and carefully guarded since the 1950s.
Fried food continues to be popular, but many vendors have experimented with healthier foods. That includes those made with organic or locally sourced ingredients, as well as gluten-free products. Connie Boesen, who runs the Applishus chain of stands at the Iowa State Fair, sells caramel apples and apple fritter bites, but also fruit on a stick and Caprese salad on a stick.
The push for a relatively healthy alternative to what Larson terms the "fried-food freakshow" is part of what led Tami Benoit to develop the pineapple bowl in Iowa.
"Sometimes 'healthy' doesn't do so well, but I think it was something more than healthy—it was fresh and felt good to eat," she says.
Diamond Jack's ice cream nachos and pineapple bowl were successful enough in 2016 that they'll almost certainly return next year, and the pineapple bowl may get its own trailer. Certainly the visually striking nature of the dish, which made me the center of attention as I wandered near the midway, generates its own word-of-mouth marketing.
Will the pineapple bowl demonstrate the same staying power as the hot beef sundae, the deep-fried candy bar, or maybe even mini-doughnuts? Check back in ten years. In the meantime, enjoy it in its native land on the brightly lit, deep-fried Midwestern fair circuit.
Just don't eat one before taking a ride on the Moonraker.