Feature Article - April 2020
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Feed the People

Concessions, Food Trucks & Farmers Markets

By Dave Ramont

Grover's company offers a wide variety of equipment, containers and supplies for making concession staples, including fudge, cotton candy, frozen treats, pizza, pretzels, hotdogs, nachos and cheese, funnel cakes and fried foods, waffles and beverages. "By far, popcorn is the most popular item we sell," said Grover. "It's versatile, cost-effective and easy to produce. Profit margins average over 70%."

There are kettles, cookers, tumblers and mixers for making popcorn, cheese corn, caramel corn and kettle corn. Serve it in buckets, cups, bags or boxes. There are oils, glazes and seasonings for making ranch, bacon, jalapeno, grape, cinnamon or dill popcorn. "One of the trends that is most relevant to the park and rec scene is self-serve popcorn machines," said Grover, which offer convenience and save on labor. These cabinets feature a push-button-activated dispenser. For larger venues they offer a dual-auger system, allowing two customers to dispense popcorn at once.

The so-called food truck revolution continues to grow, and while estimates vary, some say the industry is already earning $1 billion annually, with more than 4,000 trucks in operation. Culinary programs are offering classes geared toward managing food truck operations, and the variety of foods available continues to diversify. Cities and parks departments have noticed, and many are either holding annual food truck festivals, offering weekly or monthly food truck nights or just adding trucks to existing events like concerts in the park.

In May 2020, the second annual Naperville (Illinois) Food Truck Festival will take place, featuring a beer garden, live DJ entertainment and a vendor village featuring local businesses. A local children's museum offers hands-on activities. Guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets to the expansive lawn area, which also features a playground.

The 30-plus food trucks on hand will offer lobster rolls, Neapolitan pizza, dumplings, gumbo, BBQ and Jamaican jerk concoctions, as well as Asian, Polish, Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine. For the sweet tooth there's funnel cakes, ice cream and shaved ice. And to celebrate Cinco de Mayo weekend, there's the Food Truck Taco Showdown. Several trucks will feature tacos, and attendees can vote online to crown a winner. The fest costs $5 in advance or $10 at the gate, with a portion of proceeds going to charity. And for a little extra, food enthusiasts can purchase the Early Eater tickets, allowing access to the trucks one hour before the official opening.

The Naperville fest is produced by Brew Avenue Events, a Chicago area full-service event management and production company specializing in food truck festivals and craft beer festivals. They offer consulting and concept development, budgeting, food truck recruitment, marketing and social media promotions, vendor sourcing and onsite management which includes set-up, break down, admissions, etc.

"We work with local nonprofits, park districts, municipalities or private venue owners," said Alessandro Vazquez, president of Brew Avenue Events. "We also produce private events for large organizations, neighborhoods/apartment complexes and school districts." Vazquez said they also get inquiries from communities or groups looking to add one or more trucks to an existing event.

Vazquez reports that some food trucks even venture from Wisconsin and Indiana to participate in events. "They find us or we find them, with new ones coming on board every season. Part of our service involves consulting with a client to determine the best trucks and type of cuisine for their market." He explained that different cities and counties regulate and permit food trucks differently, so they also handle those details to ensure all participating trucks are in compliance.

Each food truck event is developed differently, according to Vazquez, and the date, types of trucks being sourced and the type of event will determine how communities can profit. "Plus, it doesn't hurt to have a big group of hungry people descend on your town. We typically hear that local brick & mortar restaurants see a bump in sales on event days."

He added that they like to feature music and local vendors to round out the guest experience. "Having a cool venue helps, as well as having something for kids to do." This might include a face painter, balloon artist or other family activities.

Another way that cities and parks are engaging patrons through food is with farmers markets. And though these gatherings have been around for many years, it seems as if more and more communities of all sizes are finding ways to incorporate them. The Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) is a nonprofit organization with a mission "to strengthen farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers and communities." They offer programs, resources and networking opportunities. "We're especially focused on providing training and technical assistance to market managers and operating organizations, as well as providing a vast array of educational resources, tools and templates," said Stephanie Fenty, operations and communications coordinator at FMC.

For those communities looking to start a farmers market, Fenty mentions some fundamental considerations, starting with location, which is critical to market success. Determine how to legally secure the location, the costs involved, and consider the accessibility for your customer base and vendors.

What about community support? "The most successful markets begin when community members express interest and desire for a farmers market and rally together to make it happen," said Fenty.

Are there regulatory barriers? Will local government and local businesses want to be involved? Fenty suggests conducting feasibility surveys for consumers and businesses to learn more.

Fenty also suggests a feasibility survey for local farmers, to gauge interest and determine their preferred days and times for participating. Also, consider management. "The most successful markets have paid managers and/or coordinators, perhaps along with a board of directors and several market volunteers," said Fenty, adding that you should consider management structure, staffing, budget and the overall mission of your market.