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From Rigorous Social Distancing to Drive Thru Fairs, Food Concessionaires Get Creative During the Pandemic

Frazier Shows Drive Up Food in Arizona
Frazier Shows opened its funnel cake trailer in Fountain Hills, Arizona to help generate extra income while the show was not operating.

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During this period of lockdown, the NICA (National Independent Concessionaires Association) and its Executive Director Rey O'Day seem busier than ever. The organization has been highly active in assisting members with SBA  and other government programs, creating networking opportunities, as well as developing safe distancing guidelines for their members.

The organization's Board and Advisory Committee held a Zoom meeting in May as a means to introduce, outline and develop the ideas circulating around what will be the “new  normal”.  Fair representation at the meeting was high and included fairs that have postponed until 2021, and fairs who are working towards creating a safe, fun event in a New Normal – Gene Cassidy, President/CEO, The Big E; Eddie Cora, CEO, Miami Dade County Fair and Exposition; Renae Korslein, CEO, North Dakota State Fair; Melanie Linnear, VP of Food Service, State Fair of Texas; Dan Mourning, General Manager, New Mexico State Fair; Jeremy Parsons CEO, Clay County Fair (Iowa); James Romer, Assistant Fair, Manager, North Carolina State Fair; Scott Suchomski, CEO, Tennessee Valley Fair and; and Nancy Smith, General Manager, South Carolina State Fair. 

NICA has issued one of the most extensive and specific guidelines in the fair industry, a point-by-point breakdown of how safe social distancing and new food handling procedures can be implemented at fairs, midways, food courts and other vending areas. 

Researched and written by O'Day, and available on the NICA website, the document recommends taking employee temperatures, employee training, the need for all employees to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); Hand Washing; Hand Sanitizer Stations; Menus: Ordering; Contactless Payment; Beverage Service and Common Usage areas. 

“Fairs will reopen,” O'Day writes. “Now is the time to formulate an active plan so that you will be ready to reopen with them. Visit your Health Departments and listen to what they are thinking, visit food concessions that are open and see what they are doing, and share your plans with your Fair Managers. All business relies on relationships; don't let this year become out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Be curious, ask questions, and let it be known that you are a NICA Member who is ready to help.” 

One of the most interesting developments was the Drive Thru Fair, a concept presented by Phillip Delahoyde of Extreme Foods, and Don Delahoyde, of  NICA. Essentially, these localized, mini-events feature a food stand that is set up in the parking lot of a fair or other event, essentially becoming a takeout restaurant. The Delahoydes touched on many specifics in their presentation: “from Health Department permitting to menu selection; from utility needs to traffic control; from labor requirements to packaging for to-go items; from lower pricing to lower rent; and from supplier lead times to the importance of contactless efficiency for the Customers.”

Anderson Midways participated in a drive through food fair at the fairgrounds in Standish, Michigan in May.

“A lot of fairs that were cancelled but still want to be have something to remind people about their fair and involve their community,” said “O'Day. “It's a great idea. I believe it's happening in a few places. The vendors have a limited menu, they cannot sell everything they used to because of the supplies and staffing. People are placing orders, cars are pulling into the lot and getting the food. They arrive and stand in line with safe distancing.”

NICA is launching a Fair Food Finder (#NICA Fair Food Finder) , which is still in the developmental stages, most critically the creation of a database of food vendors and concessionaires.  Eventually, the Finder will enable fairgoers to find their favorite food at a fair that is still being held, albeit under the “New Normal” conditions. 

On the NICA website, the new search engine welcomes consumers: “Discover our concessionaire locations where they are cookin' up your favorite fair foods! Our concessionaires prepare traditional fair foods as well as unique one of a kind options. Enjoy great food and create fun memories with friends and family, while helping support your local food vendors!”

But until it drops, interested purveyors can enter their data. “If you are an interested vendor, we invite you to get a head start on promoting your business by adding your listing.”

O'Day is urging NICA members “to move away from 'All or Nothing' thinking and instead search for collaborative solutions by communicating our needs and creative thoughts.”  

Skelly's Amusements drive-up food court in Williamstown, NJ

She was also kind enough to answer a few questions from Carnival Warehouse about the current state of concessions, what the New Normal might look like, and how we may get there. 

Carnival Warehouse: How difficult has been watching major fairs cancel in succession?

Rey O'Day: When Houston closed I thought fairs would open by July 4th.   When the LA County Fair cancelled in early May I began to think there might not be any fairs opening in the west.  When Minnesota cancelled (eloquently I might add) I thought oh my, maybe we will not have any fairs open this season. I still hold some  hope for the late September/October fairs that have not cancelled.  NICA is available to participate in any conversations that will help them open. The western fairs went down in April and May, the Midwest is still a group holding on, and on the East Coast and Texas, there are fairs that are planning to go on. The process is the same; shock and disbelief.

CW: Yet, you sound very optimistic. 

RO: I am optimistic. Our members are very entrepreneurial, we will survive this. Together we can figure out how to make it work. We always figure out solutions.

CW: In the interim, what kind of assistance is NICA providing to its members? 

RO: We're helping with the applications for SBA loans and offering guidance on how to adjust their insurances. Also, when the concessionaire should go after deposits from fairs and how to work with their service suppliers. We're also helping our members write letters.

CW: To whom?

RO: State officials, local officials, health officials, legislators. We're ready to open, we are a resource that fairs and governments can use. Communities depend on their fairs and we want to support them in whatever decision they make. But also, as an organization during these times, it was important to keep some sort of normalcy, so we are moving forward with our NICA Foundation Scholarship program, which is open to family members or employees of NICA members. We received 31 applications for scholarships. We are also going forward with our regular board elections, which will take place through the summer. 

CW: What are fairs looking for from their food vendors if they are planning to reopen?  

RO: The vendors who are 40 milers, relatively close to the fair, are not as dependent on huge routes or large work forces. You will be working at capacity that is 50 percent of what is usual and with social distancing. The fairs and the vendors are downsizing, so capacity is driving many of the decisions. It is also economic, you can't have the same number of vendors, so the change is downsizing. Capacity is driving a lot of the changes.  

CW: How much lead time will most vendors need when fairs decide to go on with the event? 

RO: Three to six weeks. The supply chain is a mess. I don't think the staff will be as big an issue for food concessions as it is for carnival companies, many have their sent their H2B workers home. The amusement parks and theme parks are opening in some parts of the country, I am watching them very closely. We're going to be learning from them.  

CW: You outline a lot of the specifics food concessions will have to be aware of when they reopen during the pandemic. If there is one key area that could be the most problematic what would that be? 

RO: Social distancing will be crucial. Food concessionaires should be involved in how they lay out the fair, how the fair managers choreograph the grounds to keep people apart. All of it is a math problem, if you have 36 square feet of space, and you maintain six feet distance, and that can tell you what your capacity will be, so you lay out the space is a math problem we're  struggling with and working on diligently. 

CW: A recent study, ranked eating outside as a risk factor of #4, and takeout food as #1, very low in a scale --  eating in restaurants or going to a concert are 8 and 9 respectively – this seems to bode well for food vendors at a fair. Are there enough similarities for this to be the case and what are the differences that concern you the most?

RO: That helps us. We're in a better position than the commercial retailers, who are small businesses holding on to a lot of inventory. With food outdoors, you have the equipment already and you don't have as large as inventory. But I think the fairgoer won't have as many choices. The fair market has a sophistication, and there's been a really good market for both new foods and for the traditional fair foods. But if the choices become more limited, and instead of five choices, you have two fair food choices, the fair foods like the turkey legs might be driving the food menus. It's what people get every year.

CW: How can food vendors expand mobile food ordering at the fair? 

RO: They are going to have to. There are online ordering for food services, but I think most will use a POS system, probably do some sort of online ordering.  People go to a kiosk at the arcade or to load up their cards, they can certainly go to a kiosk to order food.  

CW: What will be one of the most critical factors when fairs reopen?  

RO: Guest confidence. I think we're capable of learning how to operate at 50 percent capacity, but will people come out? I think they will, be but that I don't know. There's been a whole bunch of unemployment, so that could also affect the guest confidence.

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