Fair vendors a tale of family, travel and hard work

From mouth-watering sausages to ice-cold sweet treats, traveling vendors serve up menus synonymous with county fairs. The business behind the booths is no easy task, and for many owners, success comes from a work ethic and a life of experience that is often underestimated or overlooked.

“I’m third generation doing it,” said Vincent Nelson, owner of Vinnie’s Fine Foods, with roast beef and hot sausage sandwich stands throughout the Saratoga County Fair. “It’s what I know. I’ve grown up at a lot of these fairs. I’m 46 years old, and I’ve been at some of these fairs for 40 years of my life, so it’s my lifestyle. It’s what I’ve always done.”

Siblings Griff Gillette, who slings homemade scoops at his stand Polar Bear Ice Cream, and Brian Gillette, who runs Gillette Pizza with his wife, Susan Gillette, also grew up at fairs. Their grandparents started Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q, and the brothers’ first fair for the restaurant was at the Saratoga County Fair. The brothers eventually explored their own concession trailers and began their own traveling legacies. 

Lauren Delaney, chairperson of the concessions and commercial exhibits for the Saratoga County Fair, said many of their vendors are multigenerational. She’s seen with some vendors that their children have grown up and are taking over the family business, but not all.

“Their kids see how much their parents work and how hard they work,” Delaney said. “And they’re actually going into other industries. So while some are continuing in this industry, there are those that are saying this is too much for me.”

The hard work behind these businesses is why Delaney finds the term “carny” to be derogatory. While the word was first used in 1933 as a name for carnival workers, television shows, movies and popular culture have attached stereotypes to the definition.

“When people use the word ‘carny,” I always say, ‘Well, I’m a professional educated concessionaire,” Brian Gillette said. “The misconception is that the fair industry is a bunch of uneducated people, and it’s actually quite the opposite.”

The volume of business, long workdays and logistics behind coordinating ingredient deliveries and employees require a lot of labor. Plus vendors often have to juggle the roles of manager, accountant, marketer, server, cook, mechanic, electrician, plumber, pizza man and more to cover whatever comes their way. 

And for folks like the Gillettes, who travel along the East Coast working events from Boston to Miami, taking their business on the road adds another layer of complexity. They track different taxes for every state’s workers’ compensation, adhere to strict vehicle regulations and obtain a health permit in every state. 

“This is as much business as the pizza shop around the corner in your hometown,” Brian Gillette said. “Every time we go from fair to fair, they have this conception that we’re not compliant. Actually, we’re probably under a microscope more than an average restaurant because we get inspected every single week, sometimes multiple times a week.” 

Then there is the cost of operation. 


“The money that they have to shell out to even operate, it’s more than any of us could even imagine,” Delaney said. “Some of these stands here are multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that cost doesn’t even take into account the food costs and production costs.”

The financial and labor costs are worth it, though, because of the family traditions these owners get to continue and the community and memories they create. 

“We couldn’t be [at the Saratoga County Fair] last year,” Susan Gillette said. “When we came up here this year, and we walked in the office, I said ‘We’re home.’ It’s like that every time. I have so many good memories of our kids growing up here. Everybody gets to see our kids grow up out here.”

And when they get to share these experiences with their children, it becomes a full-circle moment.

“Helping my mom do snow cones when I was a kid at the Ulster County Fair, the Greenville Fair has always been in my memory,” Nelson said. “And I started these memories with my son now. He’s 12 years old. At the Ulster County Fair, he helped me cook breakfast in the morning for the fairgoers. It’s a family tradition.” 

 

Victoria

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