Carowinds introduces home-cooked dining in new Harmony Hall

As the self-titled “Thrill Capital of the Southeast,” Carowinds is constantly evolving.

The amusement park, which straddles the North Carolina-South Carolina border, will announce more new rides later this month.

Yet, in the quest to provide guests the “best-day-ever experience” every visit, Carowinds has turned to more than just rides. The latest addition is the tasting spoon.

Sometimes it is, literally, a spoon, but most often it is a philosophy. Carowinds wants its employees to understand “it’s not OK not to try” – in the park’s kitchen.

The goal is to make dining a memorable part of the park’s “best-day-ever experience.”

“Food is a gateway to conversation,” says Jonathan Muffett, the park’s food and beverage manager. “It’s also fashion. People want the latest and the greatest, and we have to keep up.”

It’s a big cultural change for Carowinds.

For years amusement park food was synonymous with fried food. There was fried chicken and French fries, and if you wanted dessert, there were funnel cakes – fried batter covered with powdered sugar. It’s estimated the typical funnel cake has 760 calories and 44 grams of fat. Tasty, but not heart healthy.

“We were feeding the masses, the quick and easy,” said Muffett, who has worked at the park since 2001.

Now, the park has a chef and several sous chefs and other specialists turning out fresh, hand-made food every day. They embrace the tasting spoon philosophy, sometimes using a real spoon to sample sauces and side dishes, or, with other dishes, a fork.

Their goal is to provide tasty, consistent dishes for the park’s newest attraction, Harmony Hall, near Planet Snoopy. While vendors offer traditional amusement park food elsewhere in the park, the cavernous 26,500-square-foot Harmony Hall offers custom-made pizzas, made-to-order salads, fresh baked goods, pre-packaged gluten-free items, and, of course, Carolina pork barbecue and beef brisket, hand-breaded chicken tenders and thick-cut, seasoned French fries called sidewinders.

The park’s location dictated some of the food. But even finding the right “Southern foods” was challenging, Muffett said. Everyone has his or her own favorite fried chicken and collards recipe, he said.

“While we kept the regional base, Harmony Hall had to be a melting pot, too,” Muffett said.

Carowinds sought opinions from a variety of sources: chefs at other parks owned by Cedar Fair, people at trade shows, food vendors, even their own employees who were taste testers.

Some things were tried and easily discarded. Succotash – corn and usually lima beans – sells well in the North, but not here. A fried corn dish also didn’t make the cut, nor did deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza. Catfish was also offered at one time, but it was dropped too.

The culinary home runs are the barbecue, which is slowed cooked for 14 hours, smoked with hickory wood and then hand-pulled, the chicken tenders and the sidewinders.

The chicken tenders are cooked according to “Miss Nancy’s” recipe, said sous chief Shane Waldrup of York. Like the colonel’s, the exact recipe is a secret blend, but Waldrup said the best tenders are a combination of the right color of the batter – a yellow tinge – and buttermilk that has a creamy color and consistency.

The food has a premium price, but the quality and quantity will show “the value you are getting,” Muffett said.

Success is more than just how the food is cooked.

Amusement parks have understood for years that the guest experience starts with the parking lot. It must be trash-free, as first impressions are difficult to overcome.

At Harmony Hall, the food not only has to be tasty, it also has to be presented correctly. “How it looks on the plate is important,” Muffett said.

The result, said Gary Chadwick, the vice president of resale, is a “whole new world” for Carowinds and its guests.

Just like any other area of the park, Carowinds will measure a variety of data at Harmony Hall. What sells and what doesn’t? What’s the cost of regionally grown produce? How long does a guest stay?

It will also look at whether a guest comes for lunch – and returns for dinner. If guests come twice a day, Carowinds officials will know patrons are staying longer. A Harmony Hall employee recently suggested adding breakfast, heating a grill for pancakes and grits.

Several factors can’t be measured by numbers. One sure-fire measure of success is whether park guests are smiling after dining. Another – and one that’s unique to Harmony Hall – will be, said Muffett, guests asking for seconds.