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Vending and trending: Food at the fair offers more than fried fare

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 31, 2017, 10:57 p.m.

Step off the scale and into those pants with the elastic waistband. Put on a roomy shirt and comfy shoes – it’s nearly time for the 10-day Spokane County Interstate Fair.

Before you head out the door, enjoy this calorie-free sample of tradition and trends from the fair management and several of the food vendors who await your visit.

Fair coordinator Jessie McLaughlin is busier than a mother of quintuplet toddlers. Bringing order out of potential chaos, she calmly organizes the fair’s myriad activities, including overseeing the selection and performance of 40-plus food concessions.

“We are always reviewing the current vendors’ performance and appeal to our guests,” said McLaughlin. “Sometimes we find that a certain line of food has run its course and fair enthusiasts are looking for something different or exciting.”

This year’s fair fare is a mix that will appeal to those desiring lavender lemonade as well as traditionalists walking straight down memory lane for elephant ears and corn dogs. Whatever your stripe, you won’t go home hungry.

McLaughlin sees an upward demand for both “walkable” and “shareable” foods. Eating an item on a stick or in a cone allows you to keep moving through the fair. “I think this speaks to our fast-paced lifestyles and the need to see and do as much as we can in a short period of time,” she said. Sharing is another approach. In lieu of loading up on a single entree, ordering food to share lets you and your friends sample a wide variety of items in a day.

When you bring your appetite, also bring cash. McLaughlin said most vendors will not accept credit or debit cards. Watch for discounts on senior and patriots days.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Since the early 1990s, fairgoers have made a beeline to buttery corn on the cob from the Spokane East Rotary Club. Up to 650 cobs a day pass to eager hands already clutching napkins for chin wiping. The nonprofit club concedes to change with caution in its steadfast mission to raise funds for local charities. They added baked potatoes at the recent turn of the century, and turkey drumsticks in 2010.

“We have no competition for our corn,” said booth manager Ron Schoenberger. “When we started serving turkey legs, they were slow catching on. Now it is our understanding we have people attend the fair to get one,” he said. About 2,500 slow-roasted turkey legs march from the cash-only booth during the fair.

Corn dogs, ice cream and caramel corn rule at H & H Blue Vending. This is a family operation, continuing an ever-popular menu predating bell-bottoms, plus an original spin-art booth that has spattered paint on paper for many thousands of kids. Owner Susy Green spent her childhood summers on the road with her parents and eight siblings moving the concessions from fair to fair. They slept in a converted school bus while on tour. “I had my friends in each town and would see them once a year, and we got to know other families that moved with the fairs,” said Green.

Her father spun the original spin-art turntable with a washing machine motor. “He had a heck of a time getting it out of the basement because it was so heavy,” said Green. Now much lighter with fan motors, the art still spins out the same product. “My dad would be so happy to see it still running after all these years.”

Green makes her own corn dog batter and mixes the ice cream from scratch. She sees to it her staff keeps the stands sparkling. “I tell them, ‘You got time to lean, you got time to clean.’ ”

While the menu is vintage, Green’s business responds to today’s demands. “In recent years people are taking initiative for their health,” she said. “They want to know about the ingredients I use, what kind of flour for the corn dogs – so I laminated a list for them to read.” Green orders and tracks supplies online and looks for environmentally friendly materials. Cash only.

Keep it simple

For 22 years and counting, Island Noodles founder Hale Lake has stayed true to his family recipe for Hawaiian-style wok-fired noodles. “I offer one noodle with or without chicken, and my signature Island Slaw,” said Lake. This is Lake’s sixth year at our fair, but his food can be found in 39 states at major league baseball games, the Super Bowl, NASCAR races and other large fairs.

Look for a big Tiki hut and plumes of controlled flames. You can watch all the preparation while you wait for your order. Depending on the weather and the day, Lake estimates his concession sells between 500 and 2,000 orders daily.

“People have a lot of personal dietary restrictions,” said Lake, “so I wanted to offer them an option they can enjoy.” He uses gluten-free soy sauce, egg-free noodles and 21 kinds of fresh vegetables that are chopped on-site. He said fried items are a must at a fair. However, the biggest trend he has seen develop nationwide is the willingness of food selection committees to add items that are not deep-fried.

Ron Nelson of Philly Express has been coming to the fair since he was 2 in 1964. Fast-forward to 2017, and he is in his third year here as a food vendor. “Some people want a change from deep-fried Twinkies,” said Nelson.

He is an enthusiastic advocate of sticking with a limited menu, offering only Philly cheesesteaks in a handful of versions. “I don’t even sell fries,” he said. His Buffalo Chicken Philly won the best fair food award at his debut here in 2015. “I get my rolls fresh from Philadelphia and just offer top-quality food,” he said.

A relative neophyte compared to multigenerational food stands, Nelson feels pretty special being brought in by the fair and works hard to build up his customer base. “On our biggest day we serve probably 500 Phillies, on a slow day maybe 300. We’re always trying to push that up. The fair looks at the bottom line.”

He said he gets lots of good help to succeed from other vendors and the fair management, and negative strokes from the weather. Rain cut his business in half on the Saturday it rained last year. “Most of the vendors are incredible – they help you out a lot, guide you in different ways, and the management knows what it’s doing.”

Pizza Rita has stood by its by-the-slice pizza for 18 years at the fair. Owner Brian Dickman has observed a lot about customers and entertainment since selling grandstand food at the Missouri State Fair when he was 12.

“The first group (that) played was the Jackson 5. Next night Lawrence Welk, and then Tina Turner,” he recalls. “All the big acts were at fairs then, but now casinos are taking over some acts.”

What about the food? He’s sticking by his slices. “Some customers say, ‘I really wish you had something different.’ But what they buy is the same stuff. Pizza by the slice.”

At the beginning he wasn’t always a stickler for tried and true.

“When we first started we did Canadian bacon and pineapple,” said Dickman. “But it doesn’t look so good, and the bacon draws the bees. We’d sell twice as much pepperoni as the others combined.”

He calls deep-fried fare “bucket list items” but admits he’s enjoyed munching on deep-fried lasagna and deep-fried pickles – and he doesn’t feel deep-fried anything threatens his business. “You can eat our stuff every day,” he said. “We do pizza by the slice, pepperoni, or extra cheese, or veggie. That’s it.”

The pizza dough rises daily at Dickman’s four permanent stores in Spokane and is trucked in to the fair every day along with huge bags of cheese. The booth accepts credit or debit cards, but Dickman says cash moves the line along faster. On a well-attended Saturday the stand serves 1,500 people.

Waves of the future

Duane Behrens keeps clear goals in mind when he sets up his A&W Root Beer stand at the fair. “The fair customer is increasingly seeking a clean, sanitary environment, and we have put that as our No. 1 priority,” he said. Add that to burgers made from steak meat and fresh-cooked bacon and you get a recipe for success.

But Behrens, a cash-only fair vendor for 20 years, is also keen on using today’s technology for a more efficient customer experience. “Due to customer demands, this will be the first year that our booth accepts credit cards,” Behrens said. “Taking credit cards is an immediate 3 percent expense, but I think it is a must-do thing because people are carrying far less cash than ever.”

He’s already planning techno-savvy upgrades. “Next year I will be changing to iPads as cash registers,” he said. Behrens’ concession serves up to 2,000 orders on a gangbusters Saturday.

Seventeen years ago Michael Compton started out offering rides on a mechanical bull. The bull is out to pasture now, and Compton operates environment-friendly Wild Bill’s Olde-Fashioned Soda as well as a rock climbing wall and zip line attractions. Based in Oregon, Wild Bill’s sets up at 35 fairs and festivals in the Western states. This is Compton’s sixth year in Spokane.

Compton describes himself as “an old tree-hugging hippie and lives his motto, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Instead of filling single-use plastic cups, he sells the stainless steel mugs the soda comes in and welcomes mug holders to unlimited refills all day long. He breaks down and recycles the cardboard boxes his supplies come in. He cannot tolerate plastic materials.

“That sounds pretty extreme, and I totally get that,” he said. “Vendors are conscientious about cleaning up stuff, but after it’s collected it’s forgotten about. We are polluting the earth and oceans with garbage.” He calculates that fairgoers use 240,000 plastic spoons and forks a day.

“If I could convey one message to people, I would ask them to bring a fork and spoon from home and use those at the fair,” said Compton. “If even half the people did that, think about the difference it would make.”

This story has been updated to remove a reference to Aebleskivers.


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