A Fair To Remember

"In the restaurant business you don't get the kind of inundation that you get on a day when 100,000 people show up at the fair," Sinclair explains. "We look at whether they have experience at other fairs, at what kind of equipment they have. There are some things that conceptually or artistically sound really great, but can be practical failures." (On the topic of failures, as well as the exact number of inquiries fielded each year, Sinclair is vague; all he'll say is that it's been a long time since the bulk of the applicants were amateurs hoping to exploit Great-Aunt Millie's secret Divinity recipe.)

Vendors must be able to negotiate the fair's logistics, find suppliers who will deliver materials at odd hours, and secure workers happy to endure long, hot hours for low pay. "In 12 days, that person has all the costs associated with operating a business," says Sinclair. "The cost of a license, equipment, labor. An operator only has 12 days to make it. If they get too much rain, or not enough help, it can have a big impact on the bottom line."

Applications that make the short list go into a file, from which Sinclair and his staff draw when a spot opens up. Space requirements factor into the decision: Some corners of the grounds can't hold a vendor who needs a refrigerated truck. Others can't accommodate long lines. And each addition must help preserve the balance between hot and cold, exotic and traditional, sweet and sour.

In the end, the handful of applicants who get the nod in any given year probably think they've been given a license to print money. They may even hang on to that illusion until Labor Day, when they count the till one final time and mumble, "Gold mine, my ass."

Meanwhile, God watches. Tinkering, as is his style, with the details. Fair staffers count foot traffic in buildings and at attractions. They count the number of items-on-a-stick leaving a vendor's window at different times of the day. They flyspeck the books. "We look at every operation every year," says Sinclair. "We do a lot of photo-taking, we review everything at the close of the fair, and we get involved in the aesthetics and functionality of every business."

Here's what that means from a vendor's perspective: Bill's first few years, he sold from a stick stand barely big enough for a cook and a counter attendant. From the start his lines were long, helped by the lack of a proper ventilation system to steer the cooking smells above the heads of the public. Since there was neither room nor cash for extra help, the pace was frenetic. It was unbearably hot and stuffy. Forget meal breaks, you prayed for time to go to the bathroom. The first year I worked there, all the little hairs on my arms were singed off as we put out fires and fixed the various low-tech gizmos that kept us cooking.

After a while--when, Bill guesses, it started to look like his stand was going to make it--God came around and asked for changes. "They told us that they wanted us to build a flashy trailer," says Bill. "We submitted three sets of plans they had to OK before we could build. They would come back to us and say, 'You have to change this or that.'" It all seemed like a big hassle.

Until the following August, when business doubled. Suppliers had to be contacted, orders increased with barely enough time to thaw the product. Nonfamily workers had to be hired mid-run, no easy task when your home base is a tent. Still, the lines grew longer. For nearly two weeks, it looked like Bill was cooking his way to the Promised Land.

Hah. The longer lines meant an even bigger stall, the higher capacity required still more costly equipment. The nonfamily workers came with payroll, withholding, and insurance. Not to mention the improvements Sinclair suggested--paint this, spiff that up, iron out some glitch or another.

Each year the suggestions ate the lion's share of Bill's profits. And each successive year meant a bigger gross. Good for Sinclair's bottom line. And in the long run, good for Bill.

"He makes you work for every little thing," Bill says of Sinclair, more amazed than irritated. "He doesn't want your paint to look dull. He wants this crisp, clean, almost professional, urban look. It's getting away from being a farm fair. Now it's an urban fair."

Several years ago Bill's old two-man stand got trucked away and converted into a sauna at a friend's cabin. He says he misses it, conveniently having developed a mental block about the nights he spent sleeping on its greasy floor. It's not the hardship he wants back, it's the rush of being part of a tight-knit clan of folks who had nothing but one good idea and two weeks' worth of stamina.

Like other vendors, he used to barter a lot, slipping a snack to the garbage collectors to make sure they came by a couple of extra times, or to the off-duty police patrols who might offer a ride to the campground where most vendors flop for the duration of the fair. There was almost always a pitcher of beer stashed under the cash drawer or above the windowsill. Everybody stayed up all night every night drinking more beer. Bill met his wife at the fair; the rest of us road-tested the tempers of our significant others by parking them over the cooker and disappearing for a couple of hours.

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