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    Responding to national trends, chef Wally Jurusz has helped lead some exciting menu changes in the dining establishments at Morey's Piers and Beachfront Waterpark in Wildwood, N.J

Chef Wally Jurusz is proud of  his latest kitchen creations. “The shrimp and filet tip wrap is popular, and we’ve sold a lot of those,” he says. “The filet tip is fresh ... and the shrimp we're making that ourselves. It’s not pre-cooked.”

If that doesn’t get your taste buds going, he also offers a salad with a lump crab cake and housemade dressing, or a grilled burger with fresh ground beef from a nearby butcher.

Sounds like the specials board off your favorite upscale restaurant. But both choices and more are available in the Oasis Cafe at Morey’s Piers & Beachfront Waterpark in Wildwood, N.J.

Crab cakes and salads at a waterpark? Yes, and Jurusz says it’s one of the most popular items. His menu is determined by customer demand, and he’s seen a movement toward more conscious eating. “There’s definitely a market shift, with people wanting to have more healthier options,” the waterpark’s food and beverage manager says.

Perhaps that is why Morey’s Piers is not the only waterpark changing its food options. More and more parks are starting to offer alternatives to just burgers, pizza and fries — either at the request of their guests or in response to a nationwide call for healthier eating. With First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to cut down childhood obesity and encourage healthier eating habits, the movement now is a top priority for a growing number of waterpark operators. As America begins to pay more attention to eating healthier, waterparks are tweaking their menus and offering more food choices.

A healthy trend

Though it’s a slow transition, parks are implementing efforts small and large, from eliminating certain ingredients to completely redoing their menus, experts say. “We are seeing that operators are getting smarter, and getting away from oils and trans fats,” says Kenny Handler, who works with many waterparks and amusement parks across the country. More products are being baked in conventional ovens, and operators are finding better ways to provide healthier products. “People are making a larger effort and it’s going in the right direction,” says the senior consultant for Profitable Foods in San Diego, a food and beverage facility consulting company.

Morey’s Piers operators believe it is a trend that’s here to stay. Jurusz points out that eliminating trans fat has become a practice that isn’t going away, and now salt may be the next to follow. “The trend will be giving people options,” he says. Even portion control has been occurring more. Jurusz has noticed that people still like to eat pizza and funnel cake, but they are sharing it rather than ordering it all for one individual.

Delaware officials made an aggressive move to alter the menus at all state parks, including the Killens Pond State Park waterpark in Felton. It is part of the state’s healthy eating initiative called “Munch better at Delaware State Parks.” The effort is tangential to the activities available in the state parks, which are outdoors and nature-driven.

“Physical activities such as hiking and biking on our hundreds of miles of trails or observing and interpreting our diverse plant and animal life, all can enhance the quality of life for our citizens,” says David Small, deputy secretary, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “Now a more healthy choice of foods for our guests will complement those experiences.”

Thirty-six percent of Delaware children are overweight, says Mary Voshell, chief, Office of Business Services, Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation. “It’s just about choices,” she says. “Why can’t we give somebody a better hamburger? Or a portion of fries that’s reasonable, but doesn’t give them so many calories?”

Voshell says the Killens Pond waterpark has added apples, carrots, grapes, milk and juice, and started using a 90-10 percent beef instead of 80-20 (which means less fat), whole-grain buns instead of white bread, and 2 percent cheese instead of whole milk cheese. Calories are noted on the menu board.

At Hershey Park in Hershey, Pa., items such as turkey burgers, garden salads, vegetable quiches, rotisserie chicken, frozen yogurt and applesauce have been added to the menu. There’s even a Kosher Mart, vegetarian options, and a list of foods available that may have peanuts and gluten in them. For the popular fast-food items, the park now grills fresh Black Angus instead of frozen patties, and has switched from processed to raw chicken.

“We got a lot of good feedback from pass holders on what they were looking for and things that were absent [on the menu],” says Sophia Zulli, concessions manager at Hershey Park. She says it’s great for people who are “looking for something more healthy and don’t have to go off their diets.”

The Walt Disney Co. is another operator that has made a huge effort across the board. Its waterparks sell items related to the tropical theming. “We have a summer salad: baked chicken on romaine lettuce with plaintain chips and apple slices,” says Maryann Smith, manager of food and beverage operations for the waterparks and sports complex at Disney. The parks are offering cold-cut sandwiches, which have been selling competitively against the burgers, and opened fruit stands at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.

Patrons can pick their own fruits or frozen lemonade. “The fruit stand is one of the most popular,” Smith says. “Especially in a waterpark, you don’t want a burger; you want something refreshing. When it’s hot, that’s what people want.”

Disney first emphasized healthier foods after cutting its contract with McDonald’s Happy Meal in 2006 and started licensing its characters to healthy food items in supermarkets, such as a carton of eggs with Disney characters stamped on them.

In the parks, similar action is being taken. “As a company, we’re committed to providing healthy options,” Smith adds. “We’re not going to tell them what to eat, but we’ll give them a choice.”

Is it working?

While the healthy food is there, not everyone is buying into it, some operators say. And parks recognize that people would prefer to have a choice rather than be forced into it. “People sometimes want to eat some indulgent foods,” Delaware’s Voshell says. “We looked for a balance in what’s really good for you healthwise and what’s OK to eat once in awhile.”

Profitable Foods’ Handler agrees that is a smart route to take. “It’s interesting because even though people are saying they want healthy options, a small percentage are actually partaking in that option,” he says. “When people come to aquatics centers, they give themselves a break, and say ‘I’m going to go ahead and get that pizza.’”

Kathy Burrows, public relations manager at Hershey Park, says that while offering healthier items is a nice idea, people still like to buy chicken fingers and fries. “It’s the No. 1 seller,” she says. But it’s more than just about what people want; it’s about giving them options. She says people are starting to order a side salad over fries more often, and that having the option is really a part of providing better customer service.

Of course, not all waterparks have moved in that direction. At Six Flags Over Texas’ Hurricane Harbor in Arlington, the menu hasn’t changed at all. Public relations manager Sharon Parker says guest feedback isn’t really asking for it. “There’s just not a big push for any change in menu items right now,” she says. “It goes along with the 'If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy.”

Hurricane Harbor currently offers Papa John’s pizza, Johnny Rockets hamburgers and funnel cakes, which are the top three most popular items for waterpark attendees. The park does offer snack items such as pretzels, salads and diet drinks, but making any radical changes toward a healthier menu is not a top priority for the park.

So other than guest-demand, what else is driving decisions to expand food options? For many parks, price plays a huge role in operators’ decision-making behind food choices. Healthier options tend to cost more, experts say. Not only does it cost the vendor more, but the final price to its end-user — the customer — could be more than the quick-and-easy fries.

For example, Handler says, a Boca burger will cost more nearly 50 to 70 cents more than a regular burger. An ahi tuna to grill is nearly $1.50, compared with a burger, which is 40 cents. Whatever the park decides to charge the customer will directly affect the food and beverage revenue, meaning it will usually charge a little more.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Handler observes. “People say, ‘We want these options, but at these cheaper rates.’ It’s hard to stay afloat and have that.”

Voshell believes people tend to make food purchases based on price. As an agency, she says that being revenue-generated is not the primary goal, so “it’s OK to lose a little money if we can provide a healthier menu.” Her team also chose the strategy of raising the prices of the traditionally “unhealthy” items higher than before, to compensate for some of the higher-priced “healthy” foods.

There are methods to cost-cutting, however. At Morey’s Piers, crab cakes and salad dressing are made on site in the kitchen. “It’s cheaper and very easy, but takes a little more time,” chef Jurusz says. It also sounds healthier to sell something “made in-house” than processed.

Hershey Park says the costs were minimal, even in switching to the higher quality Black Angus burgers. The price was increased a small amount, but guests paid for them without complaint.

Another method of pricing is to upsell the product, Jurusz says. For example, people can order a $7 plain salad, then add chicken for $3, or a $4 crab cake. “It’s a good way to try to let the customer upsell themselves, and they feel like they’re getting a good deal,” he says.

Marketing

Selling the items is a science of its own, Handler explains. He calls it “menu engineering.” That includes putting certain items in a box and in bold letters, highlighted, so it pops out and makes people read it.

“It allows guests to focus on a certain item or product,” he points out. It’s also important to use descriptive language such as “fresh from the garden” to emphasize the freshness and healthiness of an item. He suggests testing various items to see how well they do boxed and highlighted on the menu.

Marketing the healthier options is important, whether you choose to advertise the changes widely or in a more discreet manner. Handing out menus to people in line enables them to choose more carefully and “shop.” Giving out samples is another excellent way to sell an item. “Dice up a well-grilled teriyaki chicken and that will do really well,” Handler suggests. But he says to pick and choose wisely — a hot dog does not need to be sampled.

This idea worked well at Killens Pond State Park waterpark, Voshell reports. Five hundred people showed up at the kick-off event for Delaware’s healthier eating initiative and were given free samples of turkey burgers, chicken sandwiches, veggie burgers and 100-calorie creamsicles. Then they were asked to evaluate the food and, Voshell reports, “People really appreciated it.” There’s a banner at the concessions stand to promote the “Munch better” campaign, and calorie notes on the menu board.

At Hershey Park, Zulli and Burrows opted for a more subtle change. “We don’t want people to wonder what was wrong with what was done before,” Burrows explains. With the menu board sporting new foods, they decided to relabel the older items. For example, burgers became “Black Angus hamburgers.”

Meanwhile, a lot of data has been added to the Website, alerting guests to the various options. It shows places in Hershey Park where folks can find vegetarian, reduced sugar, kosher or healthier food, and includes information about allergens and where possible allergens may be found in different foods.

For places such as Morey’s Piers, which underwent a complete makeover, the change couldn’t be introduced silently. The marketing team placed ads and distributed a pamphlet listing all the foods and where to find them in the park, Jurusz says. The Website also provides information found in the pamphlet and publicizes the park’s gluten-free products (curly fries and gluten-free pizza).

“People take food very personally and think they’re doing the right thing,” Jurusz says. “They like the variety ... and want to try new things.”