Sweet Thrills At Kennywood
By Mary Ellen Kuhn
Candy is a big part of the fun at this old-fashioned jewel of a theme park.
Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Kennywood Park may not be among the nation’s best-known amusement parks, but — much like the candy category itself — it’s hard to beat when it comes to good, old-fashioned fun. Charm, too.
What Works at Kennywood
There’s a ready market for kid-friendly candy at Kennywood. Last year’s top hits included Mega Warheads Sour Spray Candy, Alien Glow Pops and Ghostly Glow Pops, all from Impact Confections; K-9 Dog Bone Candy from KoKo’s Confectionery; and Brain Dips liquid candy from Generation Foods, among others.
Items with a bit of a nostalgic or retro feel such as Switzer licorice or Nikl Nips wax bottles also work well, adds Carol Palangio, who purchases candy for Kennywood.
“Anything that lights up, anything that’s different, and where’s there’s value,” — all of the preceding have the potential to make it big with park patrons, she notes.
Situated 12 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the 108-year-old amusement park boasts National Historic Landmark status, family-friendly ticket prices, pavilions for picnicking, and clusters of trees as old as the park itself. Kennywood also has its share of mind-blowing, heart-stopping roller coasters and rides with names like Phantom’s Revenge, the Thunderbolt, and the Pit Fall. Its unique combination of thrills and ambiance has earned Kennywood recognition among theme park aficionados nationwide. Editors at the online business and travel information service Citysearch, for example, recently included Kennywood on a list of the nation’s top amusement parks.
Candy — sold at venues including the 1,300 square-foot Kandy Kaleidoscope shop, the Parkside Café restaurant, and at refreshment stands and snack carts — sweetens the Kennywood experience for thousands of park patrons each year. Carol Palangio, operations manager for Kennywood Park Refreshment Co., handles candy purchasing for the amusement park and makes it her mission to add something new and enticing to the assortment each year. Managing the category is one of the most enjoyable parts of her job, she reports, despite the fact that inventory control can be challenging and selling candy in non-air-conditioned outlets requires some careful attention.
Monitoring the mix
It’s a given, for example, that the mix of candy singles sold in the outdoor snack carts as well as the Parkside Café (which is not air-conditioned) will change over the course of the spring/summer season. Before it gets too hot, items such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Kit Kat Bars and M&Ms work well, says Palangio, but later in the season, it’s time to switch to Skittles, Starburst and Swedish Fish.
Temperature is a consideration even within the Kandy Kaleidoscope, which does have air conditioning. Thanks to an “open-air curtain” at the store entrance, temperatures inside the shop can rise on a sultry summer day, which means that stocking fragile confections like truffles is not an option.
What the park does sell a lot of, though, is its homemade fudge — made on the premises at the Kandy Kaleidoscope and presented mainly in quarter-pound wedges priced at $2.50. Oversized coconut clusters, turtles, peanut butter cups and the like priced at $2 per piece are among the Kandy Kaleidoscope’s other top sellers. Also on the list of Kennywood confectionery favorites are chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-dipped pretzel rods, chocolate-enrobed graham crackers and caramel apples.
When people come to an amusement park, Palangio notes, they’re often in an escapist frame of mind and ready for something a bit more decadent than their everyday fare. Still, though, she notes that in response to customer requests she’s added a modest selection of sugar-free chocolate and hard candies. “It’s still not a big business,” she says, “but the people who are looking for it are disappointed if you don’t have it.”
Key suppliers of Kennywood’s chocolate goodies include Asher’s Chocolates, Souderton, Pa., and Apple Cookie & Chocolate Co. and Betsy Ann Chocolates, both Pittsburgh-based.
The candy shop also stocks a handful of candy gift/souvenir items at moderate price points such as a white chocolate version of Kennywood’s signature arrow-shaped sign surrounded with milk chocolate and priced at $6. Overall, though, items priced at $2.50 and under account for 95 percent of confectionery sales, Palangio estimates.
Serving up value
One of last year’s sweetest additions to the Kandy Kaleidoscope was a dollar island located in the center of the store. It features an assortment of items that Palangio describes as “fun, colorful and value-oriented.”
“We didn’t want anyone to come into the store and think it was too pricey,” she explains. The $1 offerings include candy necklaces, bags of sour gummy worms, edible bubbles and numerous other novelty products — 25 different SKUs in all. “It was a grand hit,” notes Palangio.
Like much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, Southwestern Pennsylvania has lost jobs and population to the South and the West, and the economic climate is less than robust in many communities. Kennywood’s management is well aware of the need for value positioning, reports Mike Henninger, director of foodservice and great-grandson of the park’s co-founder.
Not only does the company charge less for admission than other leading amusement parks, but it maintains plenty of picnic pavilions for the convenience of its guests. “We’re one of the few parks that still allow guests to bring refreshments into the park,” says Henninger.
Planning for summer
Palangio’s job managing Kennywood’s candy program starts each year in February when she evaluates potential additions to the assortment and makes preliminary purchase decisions. Working through brokers as well as dealing directly with candy vendors, she makes her decisions and places orders by early April.
She’s always on the lookout for what might become the season’s star confectionery performer. “Our philosophy is that one new idea can make the difference,” she reflects. “Each year before the season begins I always want to see anything new. That’s the signal that I send to all the reps that I buy from: don’t be afraid to show me anything new.”
Bringing in the right new items and keeping the product mix varied are critical for successful candy sales at Kennywood, according to Palangio. The key, she says, is to strike a balance between offering enough variety and avoiding overkill. Too many choices can confuse shoppers and slow their decision-making. That’s a mistake in a place where everyone is eager to head off to the next attraction.
The seven best-selling flavors, for example, account for about 85 percent of fudge sales, so Palangio elects to offer a total of only eight or nine varieties — the best-sellers plus one or two alternative flavors, just to keep it interesting. The total candy assortment at Kennywood numbers about 200 SKUs, she estimates.
Besides adjusting the assortment as the temperature climbs, Palangio also tweaks it slightly for the fall Fright Night events. At that point, because there are more teens and young adults than kids in the crowd, she opts for king-size candy bars vs. the standard size sold earlier in the season. In addition, she notes that “when we hit Fright Night, my goal is to have the dollar aisle down,” because that too is kid-oriented.
After 30 years on the Kennywood team (she started working part-time in high school), Palangio finds that she’s gotten better at inventory management. It’s hard to forecast because weather conditions can dramatically affect park traffic.
Nonetheless, she says modestly, “for the past 15 years, we haven’t had any returns.”
And last year, she was pleased about the fact that the closing of the Kandy Kaleidoscope shop was timed almost perfectly — just two days prior to the closing of the amusement park. “In my opinion, that was a success,” she notes. nod
History: Founded in 1898 as a “trolley park”
Daily Visitors: 10,000 is the average
Claim to Fame: Proudly bills itself as “America’s favorite traditional amusement park.”