Ever bite into a big juicy burger and wonder where it came from? People at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York don't. According to their September 2017 press release, "the invention of the hamburger sandwich... took place during the 1885 Erie County Fair by Frank and Charles Menches of Canton, Ohio."
The Menches brothers were food vendors at that 1885 fair, but "ran out of their signature menu item of pork sausage sandwiches." It was then that Hamburg butcher Andrew Klein came to the rescue. He suggested ground beef as a pork substitute. When it cooked up "dry and bland," the Menches added "coffee, brown sugar and other ingredients to create a unique taste." When topped off with "just ketchup and sliced onions," this newborn "hamburger" was good
People soon thought this was the best thing within sliced bread. By the end of that same year, there were meatball sandwiches at the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin. Before you could say "fries on the side," burgers were making it big at the 1904 World's Fair.
Fairs continue to invent and promote some of the world's favorite foods. Just as the Menches burger morphed into regional varieties, so have other vendor specials. Much of today's fair fare is not only delicious, but also economically nutritious.
Process to Product
All this takes a whole lot of planning, as verified by Jim Sinclair, Deputy General Manager of the Minnesota State Fair. He explained, "Every year we search for new foods that are unique and unrepresented at the fair. We have nothing against fried, but we're looking for a pretty good variety of products."
"Media outlets want to know right away: What foods are new to your fair? So we've had to develop a careful procedure by which vendors can make a submission. It's become a very competitive process in some ways. We want to make sure that all media gets the information at the same time so that no one outlet scoops the list of new products. We keep that list very close to our vest beforehand."
"We have a committee and staff to review the submissions. There are several criteria that the committee considers: Is the proposed product consistent and compatible with the menu for which the person was originally licensed? A mini-donut vendor suddenly selling hot dogs would be a real disconnect. Is the product of good quality in portion size and value? The committee may even ask for samples to make sure. A few years ago we had a gentleman who wanted to do chocolate-covered jalapeno peppers. We tried some samples, and they didn't make the cut!"
"Do concessionaires have enough room to meet health department requirements? Do they have the equipment it takes to produce the product? You can't have long lines of people waiting for that special treat. Will there be enough volume to offer the product for all the days of the fair? Will someone who comes on day 12 have the same selection as someone on day one?"
"Will the product add to the array offered at the overall fair? We look it over and ask: Is this really a new item, or is it simply an added flavor or topping? If it's just a new flavor, i.e., ice cream sundaes with strawberries instead of chocolate sauce, then that's just a variation of an existing product."
"When we seriously consider a submission, we ask for photos of the new item that reasonably represent what will be served to the fair guest. We include high quality photos with the media listing, too."
"The field of professional concessionaires is not as deep as it once was. It's not an easy business to be in, or to break into. We're looking more and more for people that have actual experience operating concessions. A concession is a different mode of operation than a restaurant or catering business because of demand for volume output on short notice."
"We tell potential concessionaires that if they don't have experience operating a concession at a fair or similar venue, test the waters someplace else first. You've got to come to us with that type of background. This is not the place to come with just an idea and no practical experience."
Thirty-one new foods and five new vendors appeared at this year's Minnesota State Fair. The website included a "2017 All Foods List," as well as cross-referenced locations for each and every product. In total, there were "nearly 500 foods at 300 concession locations throughout the fairgrounds," selections forjust about every palate and pocketbook.
Libby Garrison of the Marin County Department of Cultural Services in San Rafael, California also reported on some innovative food fare. She then referenced the county's "Play Fair Guide," which is chock-full of health-enhancing tips.
Lest this sound too humdrum, the following assurance is given: We're not talking about eliminating turkey legs or cotton candy. It's about celebrating what you're already doing well and adding healthy choices. This overall initiative has "received numerous awards from the Western Fairs Association and national attention for addressing health and safety needs of its community in innovative creative ways."
Marin County has found that these "seemingly small changes are good business strategies - and can happen without negative impacts in attendance or profits." This year's fair featured popular
treats such as raw oysters, freshly-blended juice smoothies,organic coffee, sushi, and falafel in pita bread.
We've come a long way since that hamburger sandwich was devoured at the 1885 Erie County Fair. Now there seems to be a burger place on every corner. And some even sell veggie burgers. So who knows what's next in line? Perhaps a Popeye-themed booth, featuring spinach bread dipped in olive oil...
The market for all things "green" is rapidly growing. Health and wealth not only rhyme, but are also closely related. Will we see vendors slowly and steadily pursuing the best of both these worlds?
New Food Items at the 2017 Minnesota State Fair: