Banquet on a stick gets "sunny" makeover
The line of customers at the familiar yellow stand was at least 10 people long, but no one was complaining about the wait. The aromas of golden-fried Pronto Pups mingled in the air with spicy mustard and the rest of the midway at the Kansas State Fair. Clearly, the traditional lunchtime menu item was as popular as ever.
Few in that line realized, though, the Pronto Pups they were about to consume--a fan-favorite version of a corn dog--had a slightly healthier twist this year. Thanks to the Kansas Sunflower Commission, the National Sunflower Association and Northern Sun/ADM, each of the five Pronto Pup concession stands at the Kansas State Fair were stocked with NuSun Sunflower Oil for their fryers.
The experiment's first year was a success, according to franchise co-owner Dwight Wedel and KSC Executive Director Steve Swaffar.
"It went well, we really didn't get many comments from customers either way, and those we did get were mostly positive," Wedel said. "The oil worked well for us and our customers were pleased with our product."
The idea to bring sunflower oil to the Kansas State Fair in such a prominent way was the brainchild of members of the KSC, Swaffar said.
"The commission felt like this would be an opportunity to expose a large portion of the Kansas public to the concept of sunflower oil and its benefits from the health perspective," Swaffar said. A recent dietary study done by Dr. Penny Kris Etherton, Penn State, showed individuals on a NuSun sunflower oil diet experienced a significant reduction of total and LDL cholesterol, compared to an average American diet and that of an olive oil diet.
With this information in hand, the KSC began looking at the various food vendors at the State Fair that use vegetable oil to fry their foods. It quickly identified Pronto Pups as a likely candidate to approach for the sunflower oil promotion because it is the most popular food item consumed at the fair. The simple "Banquet on a Stick" is a hot dog coated in a batter and fried to a crispy golden brown--usually in soybean oil.
"The commission has been working with us trying to promote sunflower oil for several years," Wedel said. "It took a lot of work to get us together." Wedel is a former FFA advisor and current ag banker when he's not selling Pronto Pups. His family, near Buhler, Kan., has strong ties to Kansas agriculture and Wedel thought this was one way to promote a uniquely Kansan product. However, he also needed to meet his customers' expectations regarding Pronto Pup quality and consistency.
And so the franchise owners decided to run their own comparison tests this past May at the Wichita River Fest. "We run two fryers side-by-side, and so we ran sunflower oil in one fryer and soybean oil in the other," Wedel said. "In our independent employee testing, we couldn't tell a difference one way or the other flavor-wise. I was concerned about the longevity of the oil, if it would hold up, and it was equally good to the soybean oil."
"It really is an equivalent product," Swaffar said. "They saw that the flash point of sunflower oil was the same, and the fill point on their fryers was the same, so there isn't any special handling needed." And thus the Pronto Pup franchisees felt comfortable rolling out sunflower oil at its most prominent event of the year--the Kansas State Fair.
But, besides quality of the finished Pronto Pup, two other things are key to the decision to use sunflower oil in Pronto Pup fryers, according to Wedel--availability and price.
"For us it's a business decision," Wedel said. "As long as sunflower oil is competitive in price, we'll use it." Wedel, like other concessionaires, uses a wholesale food distributor for his ingredients. Up until now, finding available sunflower oil through wholesalers was impossible. However, the KSC is working with a new distributor to ensure sunflower oil's availability to Kansas concession stands.
"We worked with the National Sunflower Association, which had a relationship with a food distribution company," Swaffar said. The folks at Pronto Pup, for example, need easily handled containers for their locations, and a distributor that can ensure on-time delivery.
"The challenge is availability," he added. "It's not something, yet, that you can call up to a local distributor and say you need X number of gallons by tomorrow. We have recently had a facility in Kansas open up that can provide that service, though." With this new wholesale distributor Swaffar hopes sunflower oil availability will encourage more concession stands to make the healthier switch for their fryers.
"We haven't talked with other Pronto Pup franchise owners yet, but the owners of Pronto Pup, at the Portland home office, were aware of what we were doing," Wedel said. "Other people may decide to use sunflower oil or not. For us, it's really a business decision."
For this first promotion the KSC provided 140 35-pound jugs of NuSun sunflower oil for the Pronto Pup stands, Swaffar said. Wedel said his locations normally use that much oil during the course of an average fair. While he wouldn't specify just how many Pronto Pups were served at the fair, he did say that they sold "a lot." Each Pronto Pup stand had prominent signage touting the NuSun sunflower oil, as well as news releases posted for customers and employees to learn about the health benefits of the oil.
Swaffar said KSC hopes to expand the use of sunflower oil in food stands across the fairgrounds in the future.
"Someday we'd like to see the entire state fair using sunflower oil to cook products," he said. "It may be an extremely lofty goal for our group to achieve. But, Kansas is the 'Sunflower State.' We grow the third highest amount of sunflowers in the nation. And it seems like the Kansas State Fair is a great opportunity to bring attention to a product with an identity that is so strongly tied to Kansas."
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.