It’s hard to imagine now — meandering among many yellow and red pop-up food booths and agricultural installations, moving slowly, as if through honey, as thousands of families, teens, and workers stop to admire the small mechanical rides — that at this time last year, the Orange County Fair and Events Center was basically just an empty grass lot. The sprawling Costa Mesa complex, which consists of acres of untidy rows of games, food stands, rides, and merchant stalls, has been energized by thousands of local fairgoers over the past several weeks: there are kids eager to win midway prizes, families looking for ice cream and some shade, and vendors ready to sell everything from leather cell phone belt clips to fried puffy tacos to Jacuzzis.
But like most community events last year, the Orange County Fair — and fairs across the state, including Los Angeles County’s — went mostly dormant, resorting to a hybridized attempt at drive-thru food and virtual panels and concerts, a far cry from the fried Oreos, agricultural displays, and petting zoos so common to the historic American fair experience. The OC Fair had been in near-continuous operation since the 1890s before the global coronavirus pandemic wiped out a year of planning. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in the time since, and nearly a third of all restaurants in California have closed permanently.
While restaurants have struggled to volley between capacity limits for on-site dining and takeout-only mandates throughout the past year-plus, fair food vendors have faced their own share of complex issues — namely that the business model relies on large in-person crowds and consistent foot traffic spread across a full calendar year of events. Unlike seasonal work (think Christmas tree lots or pop-up Halloween stores), fair vendors are by nature a year-round, transient lot that pull up stakes and move between festivals, concerts, fairs, and other community events endlessly. Businesses like the Victorville-based Backyard BBQ Village might have multiple stands at each fair and festival they attend, with a calendar that spans more than two dozen events per year. Losing that has, for many vendors, meant losing almost everything.
“We were down for more than 400 days,” says Matthew Holguin, founder of Fabe’s Churro & Gelato. He started the company as a college project 15 years ago with plans to enter the densely packed county fair circuit, parlaying a family loan into two health department-certified, trailer-built stands that crisscross the state doing events large and small. In a normal year, Fabe’s would do half a dozen or more, but this year its events are down by almost half.
“It’s a lot of work, man,” says Holguin from behind his stand on an overcast Saturday. “It’s a five-week commitment, and then you have 24 hours before you have to make it to your next spot.” He motions out to the loosely defined alleyway beyond, where vendors sell posters and turn turkey legs in front of passing teenagers, and a soft-rock cover band warms up in the distance. Trailers beyond the crowds show neon signs for tacos, hot dogs, kettle corn, fried chicken, and endless meats, from corn dogs to frog legs to half-pound pork chops, served on sticks alongside spiralized potatoes and grilled corn. There are endless options for foods dipped into or topped with Hot Cheetos, and no shortage of burgers with outlandish ingredients (or doughnut buns) either. It’s silly and fun and tasty and outrageous, and also a lot of effort to pull off.
“This is the hardest-working group of people I’ve ever met in my life,” says Holguin.
Holguin’s business managed to survive 2020, though not by much. Fair stands are only one part of the overall corporate umbrella; Holguin also runs churro and corn dog stands at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, and operates a line of gyms on the side — all businesses heavily impacted by public health shutdowns. He’s seen a bounce-back of sorts for 2021, though he admits that business hasn’t fully returned to normal yet as some fairs continue to press pause on public events and those that have moved forward (like the Orange County Fair) are doing so with less capacity than in previous years. “We normally do about seven fairs [each] year,” says Holguin, “and we’ll do four this year.”
“We’ve definitely gone through some changes over the past year,” says Mark Hill, the owner of Olde Tyme Ice Cream. “We basically had to reinvent ourselves.” That’s saying something for the 41-year OC Fair veteran, one of the longest-serving on the circuit, known for selling chocolate-dipped Balboa bars and frozen bananas along with soft serve and other ice cream treats. Hill’s Pomona-based company services events like fairs and concerts across Southern California, and usually operates stands some 50 weekends a year. “We normally do the Long Beach grand prix, the Queen Mary for their events, the haunted hayride at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. We do the San Diego fair, the Ventura fair, the state fair in Sacramento, the SoCal Fair in Lake Perris, too,” adds Hill. “This year we’re just grateful to be here.”
Olde Tyme Ice Cream survived the pandemic by shifting gears to a preorder and delivery model for its ice cream bars, with Hill and others running batches of orders to different parts of Southern California on predetermined days. He has built a loyal customer base through his decades at the fair, he says, though last year’s numbers were nothing compared to a season of fairs. Now that he’s back to seeing familiar faces in person, the energy of it all reminds him just how integral community events like fairs can be to the public consciousness. “I’ve talked with a lot of friends that have done fairs in NorCal,” says Hill, “and all of them have been through the roof. Orange County is no exception. I think we’re going to see a big surge in fairs over the next couple of years.”
Despite this, OC Fair communications director Terry Moore says that the number of overall food vendors has decreased slightly this year — there are still 83 various food vendors — in part as a response to the limited capacity placed on the fair overall, though she declined to give total attendance numbers for this year’s event. Those that have returned face a complex mix of eager customers, sweaty crowds, public health protocols, and all of the same issues that face brick-and-mortar restaurants, from low staff levels to high prices for ingredients.
“The thing that’s hurting us right now is finding labor, and that’s not unique to just this business,” says John Campbell of Paso Robles-based Sharp Event Services, which operates stands at fairs and festivals across California. “Even in a good, normal time, it’s hard to find staff to travel and work in the conditions that we have. Our labor pool for fairs is always much more narrow than most restaurants. It takes a particular type of person.”
Sharp Event Services runs one of the OC Fair’s newest vendor brands, Papi’s Puffy Tacos. The long, orange stand debuted in 2019 with airy tacos and crisp taquitos made and fried by hand from a glassed-in room at one end of a long trailer. But no foot traffic means no tacos, and no money coming in the door.
Thankfully, Papi’s wasn’t Sharp Event’s “sole source of income,” says Campbell. Owner Roger Sharp managed to transition into brick-and-mortar restaurants during the pandemic, keeping some staff and many of his supply lines intact as a result. Now Sharp operates Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ in Paso Robles and two other San Luis Obispo County restaurants in addition to his fair stands. Campbell credits the ingenuity of the people within the events world for the company’s ability to stay nimble and solvent.
“People in this industry are resilient and creative and great at problem-solving,” he says, pointing to the drive-thru events and out-of-state business that helped other vendors similarly stay afloat. As for what the future of Papi’s looks like, with uncertainty about the delta variant and further lockdowns and event cancellations hanging in the ether, Campbell isn’t sure.
Like many vendors who have spent a lifetime at state and county fairs, Campbell knows there’s something ineffable about continuing to give people a connection to their past at events like these, whether through a small-town lineage or by showing them the history of foodways, farming, and agriculture in their own region. Fairs are where politicians go to stump for the local vote; where vendors work to outdo each other annually with the greatest fried-food concoctions ever conceived. When at their best, fairs are a vital and family-friendly gathering space in which communities can feel rooted.
“We all know that COVID is an evolving situation,” Campbell says. “Where it ends up, I can’t say. The consensus seems to be that we’re going to have COVID for a long time, so let’s keep our employees safe and our customers safe, and see if there’s any way we can hold these events.”
For Holguin, continuing on at fairs like this doesn’t just mean ensuring the financial future of his business. For him, it also means continuing to fulfill the most important part of his company’s mission: giving back. Fifty percent of Holguin’s business earnings funnel directly into Working to Give, a nonprofit he started with his family that focuses on small community giving in largely rural international areas. Holguin says that he spends about half the year traveling between places like El Salvador and Venezuela, offering microloans and working with groups to supply water or shelter to those in need. Without the income from fairs, much of that money dries up, but Holguin says he isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.
“I could never sell this,” says Holguin, waving at the stand he helped to create with his father Fabian, who passed away a decade ago. “It’s got my dad’s name on it. This is [hallowed] ground for me.” And besides, Holguin says, there’s nothing that can quite replace the feeling of being at a local fair for him.
“These folks out here have been so generous to me,” says Holguin. “You can’t replace the memories of this.”