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Health food it’s not: Delicacies huge fair draw

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A plan to bring deep-fried cheese to the fair didn’t work out this year, but you can still try some new foods, including deep-fried peanut butter and jelly and pickles.

With a total of 35 food vendors at the Johnson County fair, fairgoers have options for a meal or a sweet treat. That’s the goal, fair officials said.

Fair officials want to offer variety, new choices and to support local concessions businesses and nonprofits hosting fundraisers, according to Kyle Kasting, the fair board member in charge of concessions.

What comes back year after year is decided mostly on what fairgoers rave about.


Popular food items back this year include sirloin tips, chicken wings, tacos, kebabs and burgers. Desserts include soft-serve ice cream, snow cones and, of course, elephant ears.

But officials don’t want the same foods repeated in every booth and stand. So they also limit the number of vendors selling corn dogs and elephant ears.

“We’ve expanded a bit over the past few years and tried to find new places where we can put concession vendors,” Kasting said. “But we don’t want to have 15 vendors selling elephant ears, for instance. Probably no more than two or three out of 35 would be selling the same thing.”

A new vendor specializing in fried cheese was slated to join the fair’s lineup this year, but the stand never made it to the fairgrounds — a surprise since the fair has a long waiting list of vendors hoping to get in, Kasting said.

Deciding who will get to set up a booth or stand is based mostly on customer and colleague feedback. He said vendors who get positive reviews from fair patrons tend to be invited back.

Fair board members also listen to their colleagues from other fairs during a statewide convention in January.

“We go there and share ideas about what worked and didn’t work for the fairs, so it’s a collaborative effort to discover best practices,” Kasting said. “We try to bring what worked back to our fair including successful (food) vendors.”

Fair board members then make a final call on which vendors to have at the summer event.

“We’re trying to grow and provide visitors with as many options as we can,” Kasting said. “If we have space, we’ll fill it. But a lot of people want to keep coming back here, so we don’t always have a lot of room.

“We try to bring in one or two new vendors each year to keep things fresh. We want to give fair visitors some new eating opportunities.”

Even though the fair doesn’t have any new vendors this year, that doesn’t mean there were no new food items to try out.

After two years of selling fried biscuits and s’mores, one vendor from Greenwood decided to expand the menu.

“We kept hearing, ‘What’s new this year?’ And we noticed there weren’t a lot of new things, so we decided to add a lot,” said Andrea Williams, in AJ’s Concessions trailer on the midway.

Among the deep-fried treats now being sold at the stand are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies, candy bars, sweet potatoes and giant kosher pickles.

Next year, they plan to offer a deep-fried bacon brownie.

“You can fry anything. A couple places have salads, but most people are looking for that deep-fried good stuff,” she said. “People come to the fair to spoil themselves.”

Kasting said the fair is committed to providing opportunities for local food vendors, like Williams, to sell at the fair, as well as to give area nonprofits the chance to have fundraisers.

The cost to operate a food concession during the fair ranges from $700 to 900, depending on location and nonprofit status of the vendor.

Quality and safety also are priorities for the fair board, Kasting said.

“All vendors have a health permit from the Johnson County Health Department,” he said. “They all go through the permit process. We have a waiting list because this is one of the larger county fairs in the state, so we can be choosy and only select the most reputable vendors.”

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