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The CNE’s recipe for success Add to ...

Quentin Chan is always looking for the ultimate new taste combination.

The self-professed foodie, one of 40 independent food vendors at this year’s Canadian National Exhibition, thinks he’s found it: The Krispy Kreme doughnut cheeseburger, which makes its debut when The Ex opens on Friday.

“It’s a perfect convergence of all that is insanely good,” he said. “You’ll have to taste it to believe it.”

Mr. Chan first spotted the concoction two years ago at the Florida State Fair. He immediately decided that his Epic Burgers and Waffles food company would bring a Canadianized version to Toronto.

For $8 a pop, Mr. Chan combines two glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a ground chuck patty, American cheddar cheese, lettuce, and a slice of tomato. For customers with a big appetite, and $2 more to spend, he tops all that off with bacon and an egg.

At 1,500 calories, the burger is probably more than most waistlines need. But it, and other wacky new foods, may be exactly the blend of innovation and carnival tradition The Ex needs as it looks for new ways to keep people coming through the front gates.

The burger has become the talking point leading up to opening day. Last year’s outrageous gastronomic treat, deep-fried butter, attracted 45-to-60-minute-long lineups all day, every day of the fair.

Long past its heyday, The Ex has become what historian James MacNevin describes as “a reliable end-of-summer tradition” and “a shadow of its former self.”

“People used to go to see new technologies and things that would blow your mind,” said Mr. MacNevin, who is writing a book about the cultural history of the CNE.

“Food seems to be the one area where they are doing weird and wacky things. It’s one of the last holdouts of that tradition of zany novelty and one of the things that gets people talking every year.”

But the zany eats now on offer at The Ex won their headliner status more by chance than by design. David Bednar, the general manager of the Canadian National Exhibition says his staff put out the word to vendors about six years ago that they were “open” to new ideas that might appeal to customers. He says the food building remains one of the most popular attractions at The Ex, but many customers complain that there are no more free samples and that the food offered there has lost its lustre.

“When one of our vendors is creative, we encourage them to take advantage of it,” he said.

Mr. Bednar, who was hired in 1998 to try to save what was then a dying institution, says that looking for “what’s different, what might appeal to the customer” is a key part of the job. But even he admits that innovating at a modern-day fair has become extremely difficult.

The Ex still turns a small profit, but only because of revenues from the CNE Casino, which opens from Simcoe Day to Labour Day. In 2009, the exhibition came out $848,000 ahead, once casino revenues were counted. Last year, it earned only a $38,000 profit after strong winds and rain kept people away on the Labour Day weekend, which usually pulls in about one-third of the fair’s total visitors.

“The large fairs used to sell the future and that’s long gone. Now we have to sell a different experience. What we really try to do is create an event that people feel comfortable coming to,” he said.

Some of this year’s events will have a nostalgic flavour. They include an aerial acrobatic and ice skating show, a hypnotist, a strongman – and even a human cannonball.

The early Ex focused on agricultural displays, with a side of freak shows and carnival acts, Mr. MacNevin said. After the Second World War and through to the 1960s and 1970s, it was a showcase for new products and technology. In 1939, for example, Torontonians flocked to The Ex to see the first exhibit of the television.

Lifelong CNE-goer Ken Skiba says he still has photos of himself with his mother, happily wearing a sailor suit and attending his first Ex at age 4. He recalls that in the 1950s and 1960s he would head for the Automotive Building so that he could “crawl all over the cars,” checking out the dashboard and getting a feel for the seats.

Mr. Skiba, 66, still spends one full day a year at The Ex, but the new cars have disappeared. Mr. Skiba says he can see the latest technology at an electronics show and get the gadgets he used to buy at The Ex’s Better Living Centre on TV.

“The Ex is the sort of place that plants emotional attachments in your head and old habits are hard to break,” he said. “But it’s kind of a shame because The Ex is nothing like it used to be. It doesn’t have that same magic.”

Mr. Bednar rejects any notion that the CNE is on its last legs. After all, he notes, about 1.4 million people still go every year. That’s about a third of its peak attendance in 1976, when The Ex attracted nearly 3.6 million visitors, but it’s still “a lot of people.” If there is a lack of innovation, he argues it’s because fairs can no longer compete with the diverse choices available to them in a modern, wired world.

“The home entertainment centre has taken over,” he said.

A lack of finances also stymies attempts at innovation, said Karen Oliver, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, which represents 786 fairs that attracted almost 40 million visitors last year. With attendance down and costs up because of issues such as rising fuel prices, she said fairs walk a budget tightrope every year and cannot afford to spend money on innovations that could potentially fail.

“There’s a fine line in terms of what you can charge in ticket prices,” she said. “If you take a huge gamble on something that is really costly and if you end up having bad weather that year, you could be wiped out.”

Ms. Oliver says that fairs can no longer hope to give people the “Disney experience” they might want. But one thing they can still do, she argues, is give city-dwellers something they might not find anywhere else – “the authentic experience of riding a horse or patting a chick.”

Or tasting a food that you really cannot find anywhere else.

To that end, The Ex is rich in innovation. As well as Krispy Kreme doughnut cheeseburgers, this year’s menu at the food hall and on the midway includes whole smoked turkey legs, deep-fried butter, chicken and waffles with maple syrup and hot sauce, and – for those who truly have tasted everything – pizza on a stick.

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