Visitors to the Coastal Carolina Fair could work up an appetite for fried shrimp and grits, chicken-fried meatloaf or grilled doughnuts-on-a-stick by stalking the rows of food vendors specializing in profoundly unhealthy treats. But no matter how many times they complete the circuit, eaters are unlikely to find those items, or any of the other concoctions that dazzled fairgoers elsewhere this season.
If you go
What: Coastal Carolina Fair
When: Through Sunday; gate hours are 3-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 3-11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Where: Exchange Park, 9850 U.S. Highway 78, Ladson
Price: Gate tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for ages 6-12 at the gate; kids 5 and under get in free. All entertainment is free withtickets. Ride coupon books or Sunday-Thursday hand stamp tickets are $20, Friday and Saturday hand stamp tickets are $25.
For more info: coastalcarolinafair.org
The fair this year added just three new items to its concession lineup, a statistic that baffles Mark Zable, a human resources consultant best known as the guy who invented fried beer.
“It's amazing how many people don't bother coming up with new stuff,” says Zable, who this year introduced fried spinach artichoke dip at the State Fair of Texas. “I think they're nuts.”
The State Fair of Texas actively encourages its vendors to broach the frontiers of frying with its annual Big Tex Choice Awards, a closely watched contest designed to recognize achievements in creativity and flavor. But even at fairs that take a more lackadaisical approach to their concessions, novelty pays: Zable estimates a talked-about item earns him an extra $50,000-$200,000 in gross sales over the course of a 24-day fair.
When Zable failed to earn a Big Tex Choice finalist spot in 2011 with deep-fried biscuits and gravy, he embarked on his own marketing campaign, drafting press releases alerting journalists to the deliciousness and regional-appropriateness of his creation. (He nixed plans to sell fried caffeine, which judges rejected the same year.)
“Concessionaires figure if people walk by, they're going to buy stuff,” scoffs Zable. “But when people go to a fair or carnival, they go with the mindset that 'I'm going to eat what I never normally eat.' So there's that mentality that 'Anything new, I'm going to try it.' ”
In Zable's estimation, Coastal Carolina's short list of new foods defies psychology and economics.
“That is unfortunate you only have three new fried delicacies,” says State Fair of Texas spokesman Jason Hays. But the modest number also helps explain how concessions evolve from one-off wonders to national sensations, and may reveal something about the future of deep-fried fair food.
Fried beer goes flat
At the State Fair of Texas, the visitors' guide features a new food finder that fairgoers follow like a treasure map.
The Minnesota State Fair, a perennial rival in the race to produce the craziest concession, reserves a page on its website for photos of debut items: “We try to say, 'Just because you put a topping on it doesn't make it new,' ” says Dennis Larson of his efforts to keep the popular online gallery manageable. Still, 43 items this year passed muster.
Coastal Carolina Fair visitors don't need locating aids, since all they have to remember is fried gummy bears, jalapeno corn dogs and fried lemonade.
None of the items are entirely unprecedented: A North Carolina vendor who fries peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Oreos last year fried gummy bears for the Dixie Classic and North Carolina State fairs, and jalapeno corn dogs are sold by the box at Walmart.
Fried lemonade first appeared at the 2010 Big Tex Choice Awards, losing the top prizes to fried Frito pie and fried beer.
Unlike fried beer, fried lemonade isn't liquefied. In its original form, it was a common lemon-flavored pastry; baked, fried and glazed with powdered lemonade. Because it's so difficult to craft a fried food with a liquid center, fried beer is the only concoction that Zable, the son of a Belgian waffle vendor, ever trademarked and patented.
“When I entered fried beer, the fair vice-president's comment was 'Your phone is going to be ringing off the hook,' ” Zable recalls. “Nobody even called to get pricing.”
Zable fielded calls from The Oprah Winfrey Show, and woke up at 3 a.m. for a phone interview with a reporter in South Korea. But the only deal he landed was with the Savannah Waterfront Association, which wisely realized it could catch hold of Zable's coattails in time for its 2010 Oktoberfest.
Zable swapped out Shiner Bock for Michelob AmberBock to please the sponsors of the event, which purchased one-and-a-half-pallets of the warm, boozy snack. According to Zable, every ravioli-shaped nugget sold, producing a $50,000 profit.
But despite the initial excitement surrounding fried beer, the item ultimately fizzled for the very same reason that Zable saw fit to protect it. Fair food ideas don't become fads because concessionaires enter licensing agreements or because distributors snap up best-sellers for national release: Fair food ideas catch on because other vendors have no qualms about stealing them.
“While there are a number of products that we ship to customers (in the Charleston area), they are standard concession items,” says Sysco spokeswoman Wendy Olson, specifically distancing the food service giant from “breaded butter” and “breaded gummy bears.”
Concession Food Concepts, one of the few manufacturers that tried to pitch premade concessions to independent vendors, shut down after its spaghetti-and-meatballs-on-a-stick flopped. Nobody wanted to pay for bulk treats they could imitate on the cheap.
“You have something like deep-fried bubble gum, and all of a sudden it's everywhere,” Larson says.
Vendors who couldn't puzzle out the secrets of fried beer had no trouble replicating deep-fried Snickers bars, deep-fried battered bacon and deep-fried butter, which has been served at previous Coastal Carolina Fairs. It's off the menu this year, though.
“They had fried butter for a while, and it was kind of like, it did well in Texas,” Coastal Carolina Fair spokesman Joe Bolchoz says. “The biggest thing out here, believe it or not, is the turkey legs.”
Turning a corner
At the Coastal Carolina Fair, variety is prized above daring. Even Bolchoz couldn't bring himself to try deep-fried butter.
“My cardiologist would have punched me in the nose,” he says. “People realized that maybe it wasn't such a good idea. It didn't sell.”
Although Bolchoz says “what's new?” is the question he's most frequently asked about the fair's food, people seem to savor the answer more than the items themselves. The Exchange Club, which puts on the fair, always makes sure there are sandwiches and salads for sale near the midway, and fairgoers apparently appreciate the effort.
“Chinese food does well here,” Bolchoz says. “We have two vendors: Mr. Kim has done well for years and years out here. Barbecue does well. The South is the South.”
The fair hasn't had much luck with seafood.
“You'd think that would be popular, but people can get that at places around town, at places like The Ordinary,” Bolchoz says, but eaters will line up for a gyro.
Larson's witnessed the same phenomenon at the Minnesota State Fair. For all their deep-fried bravado, fairgoers tend to spend their hard-earned money on familiar foods: Pork chops and sweet corn regularly outsell what's new and weird.
Vendor “Chicken Charlie,” who this year added fried bacon-wrapped pickles and Krispy Kreme sloppy Joes to his repertoire, told Larson, “All that stuff doesn't sell that well. It gets them to my stand, but mostly they're buying kebabs.”
A few years ago, Larson sat on an International Association of Fairs and Expositions conference panel that tried to determine, in the poetic imagery of professional carnies, whether “we're giving ourselves a black eye with everything on a stick.”
Even Zable concedes “it's become more difficult” to come up with a new item capable of eclipsing hot dogs and popcorn. That's a relief to Larson, who believes his fair's list of new foods has grown too long.
“I feel like we've turned a corner,” Larson says. “The other stuff is fun, and gets a lot of attention and hype, but you've got to stick with the classics.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
There is a variety of food choices at the Coastal Carolina Fair.×
The Coastal Carolina Fair at Exchange Park.×
Fair food at the Coastal Carolina Fair.×
A variety of candied apples.×
Food vendors at the Coastal Carolina Fair offer the usual assortment of hot dogs, sandwiches, Chinese food, pork chops and sweets. New on the menu this year will be fried gummy bears, jalapeno corn dogs and fried lemonade.×
Turkey legs cook on the grill at the fair.×
Food vendor Derrick Cole offers up a fried gummy bear during the Coastal Carolina Fair at Exchange Park.×