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Fryeburg Fair food is legendary - and for some very good reasons

Food vendors: dedicated to feeding hungry fair-goers with speed and a smile

Sonya Allen (first row left) and volunteer staff serve three meals a day at the Denmark Lionís Club booth. Rachael Brown. (click for larger version)
October 08, 2009
It is a feeding frenzy at the Fryeburg Fair. Traditional fair food, including fried dough, French fries, sausages, pork sandwiches, funnel cakes, ice cream, popcorn, with a scattering of Thai food, Philippine food, lobster rolls, veggie wraps and burritos, are all found in the midway area of the fair.

The midway is the area set aside for amusement rides, entertainment and food. The name "midway" came from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. This was the first fair to have a spot for amusements separated from exhibition halls. The amusement area was located in a section of the city called Midway Plaisance. After the exposition closed, midway became a name commonly used to refer to the section for amusement rides, entertainment and food booths at county and state fairs, festivals and carnivals.

Fryeburg Fair's midway is a bit unusual because the fair hosts vendors other than just carnival vendors. Most fairs are serviced by one carnival vendor and have few, if any, independent vendors. Fryeburg Fair hosts a carnival vendor, independent food vendors and non-profit food vendors. One might think that there would be stiff competition, but vendors at the fair work well together and get along like one big family — so much so that fair President Roy Andrews likes to refer to the employees and vendors as the "Fryeburg Fair Family."

Midway master, Dean Baker

To organize this family of food vendors at Maine's largest agricultural fair takes careful planning and careful choosing of vendors. The man in charge of the 165 food booths at the fair is Dean Baker, midway superintendent, who has been with the fair for 25 years. Baker says that some vendors have been with the 159-year-old fair for as long as 40 years, many have been serving up food for 20 years, but every so often new vendors enter the market.

"Food is the hardest concession to break into," says Baker. "Vendors that we have here want to come back, about 90 percent return," he adds.

There are some newcomers, though. Baker explains the vetting process:

New applicants must submit an application. After January 1, new vendors must send a letter of intent stating what they wish to sell, photos of their concession, details of product line, web site listing (if they have one), how much space is needed, whether they need indoor or outdoor space, a list of venues where they have been before and contact information. There is no fee for an application. Instructions are found on the fair's website, www.frye burgfair.com.

Applications are reviewed, and vendors are chosen depending on what type of a mix of food is needed. "Fair goers are looking for new products," says Dean. Because some vendors did not return this year — citing personal family matters — there are some new choices in food.

What's new?

There are always applications for French fry vendors, trying to present the French fry in as many ways you can imagine, explains Baker, and he adds, "We are saturated with fried foods." So, new this year is a barbeque booth that looks like a locomotive; a new lobster booth — from the former owner of Good Tail Lobster in Glen; a booth named Bacon Puffs; and Sir Smoothy from Schartner Farms, who owns land in Exeter and Kingston and has a farm in North Conway.

For the veteran vendors, they must be invited back to the fair and Baker sends them a contract by mid-February, which should be returned by May 1, and the vendors are notified by June 1. Certain requirements must be met to be invited back.

"To be invited back, vendors must obey all rules and regulations, have maintained a presentable concession, and as long as they have done a good job they are invited back," says Baker. Most come back and make up the mix of vendors that is special to the fair.

Of the mix, 30 non-profit organizations play a big role in serving food and the community. Local organizations such as the Fryeburg Lions, Lovell Lions, the Denmark Lions, VFW, local churches and Kiwanis — just to name a few — serve up Maine lobsters, seafood chowders, hearty soups, French fries, sodas and coffee.

Speaking of coffee, Kiwanis Club of Mount Washington Valley has manned a coffee booth at the fair for the past 20 years. They sell so much coffee that the group has been able to give back to the local community and raise funds for scholarships for college bound students, local dental programs for children, Camp Sunshine — a camp for children with life-threatening diseases — and Angels and Elves.

Coffee vendors pray for rain

Dave Matesky, who has overseen the booth for the past seven years, prays for cool cloudy weather during the eight days of the fair. "Every year you can follow how well the coffee sells; when it is cloudy and cool, it is as good as it gets," says Matesky. Over the years, it has been good. The booth sells 8,000 cups of coffee during the fair and as many as 1,000 cups per day. This event is the group's second largest fund-raiser, says Matesky.

Selling this much coffee takes 72 time slots to be filled by volunteers. There are nine shifts for eight days and volunteers work anywhere between three- and six-hour shifts. The booth is a small one and when it is busy there are three people on duty and do they rock and roll! "It is actually fun, time goes by quickly and you get a rhythm going," says Matesky.

"Kiwanis is about kids," says Matesky. So much so that students from the Mt. Washington Valley volunteer their time, too. Kiwanis supports three clubs for students, Key Club in the high school, Builder's Club in middle school and K Club in the elementary school. Members from the Key Club and Builder's Club will offer their time on a Saturday. Sometimes the Homecoming dance falls on the same Saturday, but not to worry, the students eagerly show up — just with the stipulation that they have to leave early. Matesky says the Key Club members still want to come and help out. "The kids love it [working the booth]," he says.

The Denmark (Maine) Lions also supports kids and part of their sales at the fair helps to raise funds for college bound students. Sonya Allen has been with the Denmark Lion's booth for the past 20 years and the booth itself has been at the fair grounds for the past 30 years. In addition to raising scholarship money, Allen says the booth has enabled them to raise money for a Life Light helipad for the local fire department and to raise funds to renovate a dilapidated in-town park. The fair brings in 75 percent of the Denmark Lion's annual budget.

To raise these funds, three meals are served each day. The day begins with breakfast sandwiches; 3,000 were sold last year. New this year for breakfast is the sausage and gravy biscuit. The booth also offers hearty beef stew, steaming corn chowder, hot dogs, hamburgers and standard sodas. Breakfast is so popular that Allen says, "People are waiting in line at 6 a.m." Not only does the booth serve fair-goers, but the exhibiting farmers, too. The farmers are up early milking their cows and they get hungry, says Allen.

Serving three meals a day seems like stocking the booths might be challenging. No need to worry — Allen explains that food purveyors and paper goods suppliers are lined up outside the midway with their trucks fully stocked ready to send in supplies when needed.

"All I have to do is call a vendor by 4 p.m. and whatever I need is delivered the next morning," says Allen. "The vendors also come to check with us multiple times per day."

Like the Kiwanis, the Lion's booth is staffed by volunteers who must cover 150 shifts. The volunteer staff also includes 50 people who are non-Lions club. On a slow shift, there are four to five people and on busy shifts, eight or nine people are working. Allen says the busiest days are Monday, Tuesday and Saturday.

Again, the weather comes into play. "If it is really hot, the ice cream vendor across the way sells lots of ice cream. If it is cool and cloudy, we sell lots of chowders and coffee," says Allen. There is also a good balance among vendors. "It [the sales] is so balanced," says Allen. "Everyone has their niche, there is nothing the we [vendors] wouldn't do for each other," she adds. If vendors happen to run out of something, Allen explains, everyone helps each other out in a bind.

Speaking of niches...

The one carnival vendor, hailing from Bangor, Maine, has his niche, too. Smokey's Greater Shows, owned and operated by Bud Gilmore and his wife of 25 years, Jeanette, have been coming to the Fryeburg Fair for the past 28 years. Smokey's Greater Shows is the only Maine carnival. Though Gilmore used to travel around, he says he only does Maine shows nowadays.

Gilmore's operation comes to the same spot in the midway every year. Smokey's Greater Shows brings in amusement rides, games and he has 13 food booths, some of which he contracts out. Gilmore's food booths offer the traditional fair food: fried dough, cotton candy, ice cream, smoothies, lemonade, sausages and, of course, French fries.

Again, food sales depend on the weather, and Gilmore says this is a good fair for food. "This is an eating fair," he says. "People eat when it is cold and it is always cold in Maine," he adds. It also helps that there are more than 3,000 campers lined up on the campsite outside the fair. "The campers come in to get their meals; they are eating three meals a day at the fair," says Gilmore.

He says business is also good at this fair because of how people are treated. "This fair draws a lot of people and the professionals here do try to make people feel like family," says Gilmore. He adds that the message comes down from the top management that this is our family and to treat everyone like family.

Gilmore has been in the carnival business all his life. He learned from his father and when his father passed on, Gilmore took over the Maine carnival business — and he is Maine through and through. "I was born in Maine, raised in Maine, served in Maine, I am just as Maine as they get," he says.

And this Maine fair has room for the independent food vendor, too. Baker says it is about a 50-50 split between carnival vendors and independent vendors. Baker says some carnivals take over the whole fair, but this doesn't happen at the Fryeburg Fair. "We want to be able to have control," he says.

The independent vendors have a huge draw. The myriad of fried dough, French fries, cotton candy, sausage, pizza and — lest we forget — the quarter pound fried bologna sandwich, draws people all day long. Sunflower Pizza, a long time fair vendor, has a waiting line of 20 to 30 people deep at 10:15 on a Monday morning. It is not unusual to see the owner right behind the line rolling out pizza dough. A passerby can be heard saying, " I am stuffing my face, I just ate breakfast and lunch all in one stop." Her companion not too far away pipes in, "I can feel my arteries hardening."

What the heck, the Fryeburg Fair only comes once a year.

The Fryeburg Fair runs through Sunday, Oct. 11. Gates open at 7 a.m. Exhibition halls open at 9 a.m. For more information visit: www.fryeburgfair.com or call 207-935- 3268.

Martin Lord Osman
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