In this 2011 file photo, Angela Sanchez, 5, top far left, Alexis Orellana, 5, center, and Jasmine Orellana, 7, right, munch on an ear of corn at the Gwinnett County Fair.
By Chelsea thomas
LAWRENCEVILLE — Batter drops into the skillet and hot oil sizzles. The heat causes the batter to rise and fluff, displaying the web-like pattern the cook had poured. After golden brown and crispy, the funnel cake is removed from the crackling oil and generously sprinkled with powdered sugar.
It’s another night at the Gwinnett County Fair.
For many visitors the best part of the county fair is the food. Those who promise to deliver are the concessions’ vendors. Offering the delicious treats visitors love, many vendors travel from all over the country. Grilled chicken pitas, cheeseburgers, candy apples, homemade lemonade and cotton candy are just a few of the concession stands offerings.
Fair vendors readily serve customers’ appetites day and night. For Andre and Diane Raymond from Destin, Fla., being a fair food vendor is a lifelong occupation and one that is important to their family history.
“My family has been serving fair food for three generations, all the way back to the Great Depression,” Andre Raymond said. “We have a long history in this business. The way we prepare and sell it has changed quite a bit over the years, but that’s like any other business.”
At their concession stand they sell various meats and sandwiches, from Italian sausage to roast beef. The golden lighting highlights the steaming meats and lures visitors for a closer peek. Andre Raymond said that being a vendor demands a hard work ethic.
“Our whole family helps out from time to time. We raised our whole family in the business, up until they went on to bigger and better things. We raised one of our kids from nine days old out here. We say it teaches them a work ethic. It’s a training field,” Raymond said.
It seems it is a trend for fair concessions to run in the family. Kevin McGrath is co-owner of The Best Around concession company with his brother.
“My brother is over in Memphis, Tenn. for the Mid-South Fair. ,We have four booths set up over there right now,” McGrath said.
McGrath has three booths at the Gwinnett County Fair, but at some fairs he and his brother may have up to 19. The Best Around offers fried veggies, the favorites being mushrooms, pickles and zucchini according to server Jane Harris, who has worked for the company for 27 years.
Whether it’s covering jalapeno peppers in cheddar or frying broccoli and onion rings, The Best Around is busiest on Saturday nights, like most vendors. They chat with customers over the counter and even explain how to fry the veggies, but don’t ask how to make the batter.
McGrath said, with a wink, “The batter — now that’s a secret family recipe.”
Traveling around the country, often between May and November, can be rewarding for vendors, especially for those looking to explore the country. Marean Kennedy, a 22-year-old student from Ohio State University, is working the Bonz Grill and taking the semester off from school as she travels to various fairs.
“By traveling, you get to see so many different people and the different cultures of the United States. There is a really big difference between Minnesota and here,” Kennedy said.
For experienced vendors, creating relationships with customers is one of their favorite parts of working food concessions.
“It’s really interesting to go back every year to places and see the people that you have met or the little kids who have grown up,” Harris said. “That’s always neat.”
If vendors stay at one fair long enough, they create little communities within that city.
“One of our regulars here is a police officer who comes by every day. We know him by name. He always brings his friends by here,” Kennedy said.
She even remembers his order — marinated chicken with onions and peppers in a toasted pita.
Local Dacula resident Michael Flanigan does not tour like many other vendors, but looks forward to coming out for the Gwinnett County Fair. For 14 years, he has had a concession stand, beginning with boiled peanuts and slowly expanding to now include mini donuts, deep-fried pecan pie, deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried cheesecake and fried Snickers and Milky Ways.
“I have people say they’ve been waiting for the deep-fried Oreos all year,” Flanigan said.
Throughout the concession stands there are two crucial ingredients salt and sugar. Plus, just about everything is fried. One vendor estimates he has gone through 150 pounds of batter since the beginning of the fair, only a week ago. On Saturday nights, one booth might sell up to 400 funnel cakes.
It is obvious that eating these treats as well as making them may be messy — one vendor said he goes through two shirts on a busy night — but, that corndog and plate of loaded fries only roll into town once a year.
The Gwinnett County Fair is open through Sunday. Corn on the cob and fresh lemonade await.