Summer is calling, but spring has barely sprung! One of the things I look forward to during warmer weather is state fairs, and they’re quite iconic in the Midwest. When I was a kid, the best parts were the games, rides, events, and of course those brightly lit food booths. The music, the crowd, the bright lights, and over-the-top foods take me way back. It makes me feel nostalgic just thinking about it.
So you can imagine my delight as we see more examples of state fair-inspired foods appear on menus and hit the grocery shelves. State fair food is something to keep an eye on for a few reasons. One being the idea of comfort foods and nostalgia have gained traction since 2020. There’s also an opportunity to look for regional favorites among the global cuisine craze, and sensorial experiences beyond taste are engaging consumers.
State Fair Favorites
The perfect combination of texture, color, and fun. Spun sugar on a stick is very American and over-the-top. This fluffy, sugary treat has been a part of American state fairs for over 100 years. It represents childhood and our affinity for fun and whimsy…and of course, a sweet tooth! There have been several retail products launched in recent years that are cotton candy flavor – hoping to catch the eye of our inner child.
Funnel Cakes, Churros, and Donuts
Another over-the-top indulgence involves fried dough. I was amazed to learn that the same batter was used for corn dogs (another state fair classic) as the funnel cakes. Just add a little powdered sugar, and voila! The smell of the batter hitting hot oil is very distinct and attracts fair-goers to stop and investigate. These calorie-rich, warm, and often sugar-coated treats are a true indulgence. The idea of a churro might not be strictly American, but it has been folded into many retail products and menu items.
While popcorn is a snack many consumers keep in their pantry, there’s something about movie theater and state fair popcorn that is much tastier. Maybe it’s all the butter? This salty snack is a much-appreciated break from all the sugary options usually available at a state fair. Popcorn is a flavor and treat that’s trending globally (Mintel). This snack has lots of versatility. At the grocery store, look for popcorn (especially ready-to-eat varieties) that has new and adventurous flavors, as well as products that are popcorn-flavored.
When you travel to south for state fairs, strawberry shortcake is popular, but really it’s just a representation of over-the-top American desserts. Soft, spongy cake smothered with strawberries and whipped cream have captured the hearts of many. Other desserts you might find only at a state fair include cheesecake on a stick, funnel cakes, or fried Oreos. These desserts aren’t as easy for consumers to make at home, so they’re truly an indulgence at state fairs.
State Fair Food Influence on Retail Products and Menu Items
With the global cuisine craze influencing innovation in US retail products and menu items, there’s also an opportunity for traditional American fare to influence products in other countries. According to Mintel, 78% of Canadian adults say that internationally-inspired foods are a good way to experience other cultures. It can even be taken one step further by exploring what flavors and foods are featured in different regions’ state fairs. In Wisconsin, cream puffs are popular at state fairs, while in Ohio, you can find a fried buckeye…that’s a peanut butter ball dipped in chocolate and deep fried.
Take a look at some of the examples below for inspiration on how to highlight traditional US flavors in a new way!
What state fair food flavors do you think consumers would be eager to see at the store or on menus? Share your favorite state fair treat below!