Food Fight: Fun vs. Healthy
The attractions industry is grappling with two food trends seemingly at odds with each other.
Consumer preferences are undeniably changing, with vegan and gluten-free items taking up ever more space at grocery stores. Yet, ordering patterns at attractions tell a different story, with “fun” foods continuing to dominate. Meanwhile, what is often a single vegan item—like the ubiquitous veggie burger—lives a more or less lonely existence in the freezer. Is it possible these divergent realities can merge into one where foods typically relegated to “special diet” status can become successful mainstays on an attraction’s menu?
Attractions insiders and a food marketing expert say there are two primary paths to effectively market vegan or gluten-free foods.
Make the Product Fun
In 2014, Knott’s Berry Farm aggressively expanded its menu to include offerings that spanned from vegan chicken tenders to gluten-free mac and cheese and even a gluten-free version of a theme park staple, the funnel cake.
Five years later, how did this move play out? Pretty well, it turns out.
“Those items remain, and we’ve since added vegan nachos, tacos, and mac and cheese to the menu. There’s a demand for great vegan food offerings,” says Russ Knibbs, vice president of food and beverage at Knott’s Berry Farm.
Guest feedback confirms the demand, with comment cards regularly expressing delight and even gratitude for Knott’s Berry Farm’s widely accommodating menu.
Some vegan fast-food vendors are also now deliberately targeting the attractions industry as a viable market for their food. One such vendor, United Kingdom-based Not Dogs, has set up a location in the Chessington World of Adventures theme park with the intent to appeal to a mass market.
“Our food is unique and tastes amazing; it just happens to be meat-free,” says Not Dogs Co-Founder Jane Yates. “We’re an inclusive brand with the aim of making meat-free food accessible to more people.”
While vegans are an important market segment for Not Dogs, Yates notes that concerns about the environment, health, and animal welfare are increasingly shared by non-vegans, too.
“The most exciting target market for us is meat-reducers, those who cut back on meat once or a few times a week, and we always ask ourselves whether a meat-eater would choose our meat-free item over a meat option. If it’s a yes, then it’s good to go on our menu,” she says.
Not Dog’s most popular offerings include “The Original Frank,” an American-style “not dog” with house-made caramelized onions; the “What the Duck Dog” inspired by Asian cooking and flavors; and the “Queen B Burger,” which Yates describes as “a winner complete with house-made secret vegan sauce.”
Tweak How to Sell the Product
There is no denying that people visit attractions with plans to indulge. As Ken Whiting, president of Whiting’s Foods and IAAPA second vice chair, acknowledges, “There is that mindset I’m going to enjoy myself and not eat like I eat at home.”
At the same time, he gives the attractions industry a clarion call: “We’re lagging behind customer preferences in food,” he observes.
Whiting offers some insightful ways to catch up, including one that involves little if any adjustment to existing food operations. “You can offer a salad, for example, that is prepared and packaged by a third-party vendor. There’s no labor needed; no particular equipment changes to make,” he suggests.
However, he goes on to advise, attractions shouldn’t get overly aggressive with pricing.
“I wouldn’t go higher than 25 percent, maybe 33 percent on markup. Consider offering fresher, healthier fare almost as a service,” Whiting recommends. He has a theory on where to locate healthy dining options: put it all in one place.
“Some call it the ‘Healthy Corner,’” Whiting says. “The regional theme parks are developing one place where they can point to and say, ‘We have a healthy solution.’”
He says by placing healthy options in the same location, there will be less waste at the end of the day, since those seeking a balanced menu will gravitate to one location.
Consider how the availability of a salad influences the mom who enjoys eating healthy while her kids are playing. That may increase both the time and money the family spends at an attraction.
In fact, length of stay is a significant factor in how and what people decide to eat. “[When guests visit for] two to three hours, they’re not there for a meal. But on a multiday visit, or a 12- to 15-hour visit, that changes how they manage what they eat,” Whiting says.
For those smaller attractions and family entertainment centers concerned kids will only toss the veggies into the trash bin—and thus, discourage parents from buying them again—here are some suggestions from University of Minnesota professor Joe Redden, a food marketing expert whose specialties include how to get consumers to enjoy eating healthy without changing the product.
“Consistently, one of the most effective ways is giving people vegetables in isolation before the meal. For example, this could entail giving their vegetable side (say carrots) in a cup for them to eat while the entree (say a burger) is being prepared,” he says.
He goes on to describe why this strategy works.
“First, carrots seem better in isolation versus sitting next to a tasty burger. Second, serving carrots first means they appear when people are most hungry, and they are the only food available right then. Third, people follow a social norm that if someone gives you a food, you are supposed to eat some of it,” Redden explains.
For attractions still worried about breaking the mold, not only are consumer tastes changing, so too is the quality of the offerings. As Not Dogs’ Yates points out, “Vegan food has, in the past, been seen as substandard, but I don’t think we can say that it is anymore. In fact, many meat-free food brands are of higher quality than meat counterparts, especially in the fast-food market.”
Of course, some indulgent theme park and festival foods have always been vegan, with no need to create a special version or employ special marketing techniques. Deep-fried Oreos, anyone?
Just make sure the treats aren’t fried in animal fat. Trust us, vegans will ask.