She couldn’t quite capture it in words, the feeling lodged in her stomach. It was one part nerves, for sure, but also a large helping of excitement, and perhaps a pinch of fear.
Mary Anderson lobbied for years for a chance to sell her pizza at the Puyallup Fair – and this year it’s finally happening.
She and her husband, Randy, who own and operate Route 66 Pizza in Orting and also take their food to fairs and festivals around the state, are in the middle of their first 17-day Puyallup Fair run.
In the days before the fair opened, they put the finishing touches on their stand and started making dough, preparing for a crush of customers and what could mark a new phase in their lives.
And they dealt with a mix of emotions.
For them, the stakes are high.
A slot selling food at the fair means at least 12 hours a day of intense labor and high stress. But it also means the chance to reap significant rewards.
The fair draws more than 1 million people to the fairgrounds on the edge of downtown. Feeding all those mouths is a lucrative business: Over the last six years, the fair’s total gross food sales have averaged about $10.6 million.
This year, 37 individuals or companies are selling food at roughly 165 locations. Those numbers haven’t changed much the last several years, said Dan Sharp, the fair’s commercial exhibit and concessions manager.
Concessionaires interviewed for this story generally wouldn’t reveal how much they take home but Sharp said those who are efficient can do well. Those who succeed know how to factor in the extra costs and conditions that come with doing business on someone else’s land.
The fair takes a cut of food sales – on average about 24 percent, Sharp said. And vendors must use designated fair suppliers – for quality control, he said – even if they could get better deals elsewhere.
“We’ve got to pay the piper,” said fair veteran Greg Murphy, who operates both Murph’s BBQ and Kay’s Kitchen inside the gates. “We’ve got to pay a little more than we would if we were outside the fair,”
A couple of vendors acknowledged what they charge customers at the fair can be higher than their usual prices, though they work to keep prices down and offer deals.
Those who break into the small club of fair food concessionaires have the potential to set themselves up for long careers.
This is what the pizza-making Andersons are hoping for.
“It is an opportunity. Oh my gosh, it is a big opportunity,” Mary Anderson said. “We’re so grateful that they’re giving us this opportunity.”
PATIENCE PAYS OFF
Many concessionaires trace their fair heritage back decades. When it comes to securing a spot each year, history carries a lot of weight.
The fair doesn’t have a formal application process for food vendors.
“We’ve found we don’t need it,” Sharp said.
Instead, contracts are year-to-year. But unless there’s a problem, such as failure to pay bills or a health violation, vendors typically are offered new contracts the next year, Sharp said.
That doesn’t leave much room for new vendors – like the Andersons, with their pizza – to break in.
The couple tried for years.
They started their restaurant in the mid-1990s, first operating in Graham and soon moving to Orting. In those early days, the manager of the Pierce County Fair recruited them to sell pizza at the annual August event at Graham’s Frontier Park.
The Andersons eventually expanded to other fairs and festivals, building a reputation and a following on the state circuit.
The Orting couple’s ultimate goal became securing a spot at the Puyallup. Once they did, they’d know they’d made it in the fair business, said Mary Anderson, 49.
“I hounded Dan Sharp for many years,” she said with a laugh. She and her husband, who’s 51, also lobbied friends in the fair world to put in a good word.
They worked off-season shows at the fairgrounds, such as A Victorian Country Christmas.
They put in their time.
Then a few months ago, Sharp swung by Route 66, looking for the Andersons. Randy and Mary were out, so he left a business card.
When a server handed it to Mary upon her return, she could hardly believe her eyes.
“I said, ‘Dan Sharp,’” she recalled. “Dan Sharp!”
She called right away and accepted his offer of a slot at the Spring Fair, a four-day festival in April that’s a warm-up for the main event at the end of summer. While the Andersons were at the spring event, Sharp made them another offer – the one they’d been waiting for.
“I’m not kidding you, I really thought I was dreaming,” Mary Anderson said.
Their spot opened because another vendor chose not to come back.
That’s unusual, Sharp said. In his 15 years with the fair, seasons have gone by with no change. He gets many inquiries from prospective concessionaires, though, and keeps a file with proposals – he has about 30 – to consider when there’s an opening.
Sharp said low turnover hasn’t hurt innovation because longtime vendors try out new products. This year, several new food dishes were introduced, from caramel apples with bacon to a “Cowgirl Candy Cone” with sweet potato fries drizzled with marshmallow fluff and caramel.
Vendors who keep returning learn to walk the tightrope of fair concessions – from hiring staff to ordering supplies and pricing.
Vendors set their own prices, which are finalized before the fair begins. They also hire their own employees, paying at least minimum wage. A deposit, paid up front, covers costs such as power; what’s left over is refunded after the fair ends.
Food vendors said they learn to expect the unexpected. Some employees quit, overwhelmed by the pace. The sky might dump rain, or it will be hot enough that fairgoers skip foods like hamburgers in favor of ice cream or slushies.
The first three days of the fair, especially – “that’s the wild child,” said Murphy, from Murph’s BBQ. “Things will go wrong. Registers will go out. Somebody doesn’t come in. A veteran knows that you can’t fly off the handle.”
Murphy, who also runs a catering business, has been a familiar face at the fair for decades. As a boy, he helped his father, who had a Parkland barbecue restaurant and opened a fair stand around 1968.
The ingredients for profitability haven’t changed. Vendors need to hire reliable workers – Murphy employs 75 to 80 during the fair – and churn out consistent, quality products while keeping the lines moving, he said.
When the gates open each day, especially on the weekends, it’s “game on,” he said.
“The people are here,” he said. “It’s what you do with it.”
The fair started in 1900 as a three-day event and has grown to become one of the biggest in the world.
Along with rides, concerts, commercial booths and animal exhibits, the food is an unquestionable draw – from Fisher scones to Krusty Pups, from apples dipped in caramel to hamburgers smothered in onions.
The food vendor with the largest footprint is Conifer Specialties. The Woodinville-based company has more than two dozen locations, including seven selling Fisher scones. Conifer also sells other treats, from ice cream to stir fry to hamburgers.
The jam-filled scones made their Puyallup debut in 1915 and have become a signature fair item.
“When I moved (to Washington), if I told anyone I made scones, they’d tell me stories about their parents, their grandparents (buying the treats),” said Mike Maher, Conifer president. “I’ve been on a beach in Hawaii and had an elderly woman tell me her story about scones. It’s such a tradition.”
And an example of the power of fair food.
About 1.5 million scones are sold annually at the fair, Maher said. At $1.25 a pop, that pencils out to nearly $1.9 million in revenue. (Fairgoers can buy a baker’s dozen for $13).
While some other companies also have numerous food locations, legacies of success can be found at smaller operations, too.
Rick Myers makes popular burgers smothered in onions at just two spots on the grounds.
His Hamburger Myers dates to the fair’s early days, when his father, Al “Hamburger” Myers, ran the grill.
Rick Myers, a retired teacher and school counselor, turned 81 this month and has missed only two fairs in his lifetime: one the year he was born and another during a stint in the Air Force.
He’ll employ about 90 people at his two locations over the course of this year’s fair. Back in the 1990s, he’d use 10 tons of onions and more than seven tons of hamburger during the 17 days. He doesn’t go through quite as much anymore, he said, but business is still brisk.
And for him the fair is filled with traditions.
Myers and his workers sing old songs with lyrics about ketchup and onions while they’re at the grill. Customers expect it.
More than once he’s hand-delivered burgers to the parking lot for people too sick to come inside, hoping for one last taste of a favorite fair food, he said.
He said he’ll keep on until “they carry me out.”
‘IT’S IN MY BLOOD’
Two other longtime vendors, Jim and Claudette Duris, also have no plans to step away.
Jim Duris, who comes from a well-known Pierce County farm family, started selling strawberry shortcake at the county fair in 1976. He made the jump to the Puyallup in 1981 with a single stand.
“I think I got in with the strawberries because I was a local boy with a local product,” he said. “I had a track record and they had a need for strawberries.”
Claudette joined him the next year.
Today, their Duris Concessions has 13 stands at the fair, selling everything from shortcake to roasted corn and baked potatoes to their popular elephant ears. They employ about 125 people there.
Both the Durises used to drive school buses, but now that their kids are grown, they’re focused entirely on concessions.
They start their season at the Spring Fair and work events through the summer, culminating at the Puyallup. Claudette calls it “our harvest.”
They try to make time for fun, slipping away from their stands to eat dinner together, to people watch and to visit the baby pigs.
It’s their tradition.
Like other vendors, they said operating concessions at the Puyallup is business for them. But it’s also something more.
“It’s in my blood,” Murphy said. “It’s like walking. It’s part of life. That’s the reason I come back. It’s who I am. (When) you’ve been doing it that long, you don’t know anything else in September.”
The restaurant business is in Mary Anderson’s blood.
Both her parents were from Italy, and Seattle restaurateur Victor Rosellini helped her father immigrate after tasting his cooking, she said. Her dad, Italo Carosiello, worked in Rosellini’s 410 restaurant for years before starting his own place, she said.
Her father taught Randy Anderson to make dough, and he got to see his daughter succeed with her own pizza place before he died about five years ago.
The Orting restaurant has been closed a few weeks for remodeling. Randy and Mary Anderson decided not to reopen until after the fair because they want to give the 17 days their all.
They said they hope it’s lucrative financially, but that they’ll measure success by whether fair officials and customers are happy with them.
The stakes are high. But they’ve got their dough and their sauce and their excitement.
They’ve got their chance, even sooner than they expected.
They figured they’d have to put in several years at the Spring Fair – not just one – before getting their shot in September.
“To me,” Randy Anderson said, “it feels like we got called up to the majors.”
Shoes, sheets ...
Hundreds of commercial vendors also converge on the Puyallup fairgrounds in September.
This year, more than 600 individuals or companies are selling their wares – from jewelry to kitchen goods – at roughly 800 locations. There are more spots for commercial vendors than for those who sell food, so breaking into the commercial world isn’t quite so competitive.
The fair has a formal application process for commercial vendors.
Commercial vendors also pay for their spots differently than food concessionaires. Instead of sharing a percentage of sales with the fair, they make a flat payment for their booth space. The price varies, depending on the size of their booth and the spot where they set up – inside a building or outside, at a high-traffic spot or one with fewer passersby.
A commercial vendor could pay as little as $1,300 for a 10-by-10-foot booth in a lower foot-traffic area, or upwards of $35,000 for one several times the size in a spot on the grounds that’s busier.