California

Corn dogs and chocolate tastings. Can food save the California State Fair?

Jalapeno-bacon jumbo corn dogs, pizza funnel cakes and Hot Cheeto chicken burritos may make readers instinctively reach for antacids. It’s a sharpened focus on items like these, though, that may be medicine for the California State Fair.

After years of bleeding attendance, the State Fair has shed its classic title to become formally known as the California State Fair and Food Festival. With concession sales largely bankrolling the 17-day extravaganza , organizers hope the intensified emphasis can draw more food lovers in and around Sacramento to Cal Expo.

The biggest addition is a $28 Food Festival pass that entitles fair attendees to their pick of four items, normally around $10 apiece, from 30 participating stands. Not especially groundbreaking. But customers had scooped up more than 2,000 passes even before the fair started on Friday, deputy general manager of business development and marketing Margaret Mohr said, forcing organizers to order more.

As the cost of business continues to rise and Americans’ interest in fairs slowly wanes, State Fair organizers find themselves faced with the unenviable task of trying to maintain the sense of nostalgia that appeals to its core customers while simultaneously transitioning to what they hope is a more financially viable long-term structure.

“Part of the food festival idea is to grow our attendance, but in the end, the model does have to change because revenue’s not going to keep pace with expenses,” Mohr said. “A lot of the things we’re doing this year are so new that maybe they can turn into revenue opportunities later on.”

While most dishes available through the Food Festival are the kind of classic fair fare best eaten after a roller coaster ride, more refined options are also part of that cultural transition.

The State Fair introduced its first plant-based stand, Frik’n Vegan, this year and expanded its educational tasting seminars established in 2018 to include chocolate in addition to wine, olive oil, honey and other California-produced delicacies. Cupcake decorating seminars are also available. Tickets for each of the lessons run from $5 to $20, which Mohr said pays for the experts’ time but generates virtually no profit.

Other new-era changes to this year’s fair include an esports arena, a drone light show, a selfie exhibit, wine slushies and a fun house used in Season 3 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”

If tapping into the trend of people eating out more often sounds familiar, it should. Despite being notoriously risky business ventures, commercial areas around the Sacramento region rely heavily on dining establishments: restaurants make up more than half the retail spaces in both Downtown Commons and the recently renovated Howe Bout Arden shopping center.

Food and beverage stands have long been cash cows for the State Fair, too. Attendees bought roughly $8.5 million worth of funnel cakes, corn dogs, deep-fried Nutella and the like in 2017, accounting for two-thirds of the fair’s total revenue. Getting customers to buy American summertime classics or try new concoctions has become even more important as fewer people pony up the $10 to $14 entry and $15 parking fees.

Last year’s California State Fair brought out 572,250 people, a little more than half the number of attendees at the 2001 fair. Fair attendance has dropped 27 percent since 2015 amid scorching summer temperatures, safety concerns and changing attitudes toward the cost of attendance.

State fairs across the country have similarly struggled to stanch declining attendance over the last few years, but those in Arizona and Iowa still attract more than 1.1 million visitors annually. The State Fair of Texas, the largest in the U.S., welcomed more than 2 million attendees whose food and beverage purchases made up 44 percent of total fair revenue in 2018.

“If you ask people about their favorite part of the State Fair, a lot them will say the food,” said Karissa Condoianis, the State Fair of Texas’ senior vice president of public relations.

The Iowa State Fair also introduces new food items every year. Seventy percent of fairgoers come for the food, marketing director Mindy Williamson wrote in an email.

A couple state fairs have also seen improved results since receiving a boost from the government. The Great New York State Fair, for example, has seen a 41 percent rise in attendance since receiving a $120 million investment from Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2015.

The California State Fair receives no such state funding, CEO Rick Pickering said, and will have to continue to be creative. Neither he nor Mohr identified any incoming substantive changes to the fair’s revenue structure, but both said a new model may be necessary in the future.

“We generate the revenue that keep the doors open ... and that model may not be able to sustain itself into the future,” Pickering said.

For now, the California State Fair has bought into the food world. But don’t expect it to follow other state fairs’ leads on another revenue generator: concerts.

Many of the nation’s most popular state fairs advertise two concert lineups — one for grand stage performances at an additional cost and another billing free entertainment open to all fairgoers. The Iowa State Fair, for example, is selling $70 tickets for Billboard Top 100 artists like The Chainsmokers, Zac Brown Band and Luke Bryan; modern country stars such as Dan + Shay, Luke Combs, Chris Young and Kane Brown are booked for multiple fair performances this year in smaller states like Delaware or West Virginia.

The California State Fair’s lineup, meanwhile, is a mix of acts whose popularity peaked 10 to 20 years ago (Plain White T’s, Sean Kingston, Martina McBride, TLC) and classic rock cover bands (music from Journey, Queen, The Eagles, Tom Petty, Def Leppard). All concerts are complimentary with admission to the fair, though $25 seat reservations are available for the more popular shows.

“The concerts are free and we want to keep it that way,” Mohr said. “We’re part of the community and we want everyone to be able to afford to come at a very affordable price ... you can bring in big acts, but we don’t need to do that if we can go and bring in the ones people can come and enjoy at an affordable price.”

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
Kyung Mi Lee, from Yale, writes about government and politics for The Sacramento Bee. She is originally from Honolulu, Hawaii.
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