The further I get into August, the more the anxiety creeps in, and this year is no different. For the ninth consecutive year, I'll be heading up nearly 30 food and beverage (F&B) facilities at the Western WA Fairgrounds in Puyallup. It's a bitter pill to swallow; but at least for now, there's no avoiding the two months of sheer intensity, if not insanity!
It all began as a one time deal back in 2003, when I agreed to consult on a project for a friend of a friend. He had taken over as the largest F&B concessionaire at the Fair and had little idea of how to run the food and beverage game and had been losing his shirt. All he handed me was the previous owner's profit and loss statement and wished me luck. At the time, I ran a food and wine consulting company which kept me busy for the two years just prior to the launch of FTLOP's newsletter. So when I was approached to help at the Fair, I thought, "how hard can this really be?" Little did I know what a quagmire I was getting myself into.
Suffice it to say, the previous management had left no records at all (beyond the P&L). I walked into this situation, without a single recipe for any of the hundreds of menu items, no specifications for any of the thousands of ingredients; no schedules -- phone numbers or clues for the previous employees or managers. It got worse from there, with 30-40 year old equipment in nearly every facility that was on the verge of falling apart. My first year aged me and stretched my talent and organizational skills beyond anything I'd experienced in my many years in the hospitality industry.
Looking back on that first season, I scratch my head and laugh that I not only survived it, but rebuilt the entire operational infrastructure, while decreasing food cost, employee theft and dropping labor cost too. It was the first time in about fifteen years that an owner had not lost money, though we barely broke even that year. Nonetheless, the new owner was ecstatic that his small fortune did not become smaller. After the Fair that year, he invited me back to do it again the following year and I told him I'd have to think about it. What was I crazy? FTLOP's newsletter began a few months later and by the time I had to make a decision, I had quit my day job so that I could focus on writing full time. I thought, 'what's two month's out of the year?' And I've been doing it ever since.
By the time I got back in touch with him the following spring, I learned that he had been forced to sell the company to his brother-in-law, after getting into some family trouble. That new guy is who I've worked for during the past eight years. He is tough, fair and has very high expectations, which I like about him. Since then, we've replaced 95% of the major pieces of equipment, converted concepts and created many new ones, while breaking sales records and lowering costs more often than not.
The Fair itself, is only a 17-day gig, averaging 1.2 million people attending during the season, and the attendance makes it one of the top 10 state fairs in the USA. The buildings where our booths are located are not used during the rest of the year and walking in on day one is surreal, given that these are supposed to be weather-proof.
Every year we look to make some capital improvements and come up with a plan to source new equipment, as we've managed to slowly rebuild the operation to respectability. It has been a pretty significant upgrade from the way things looked back in 2003. The three week set-up period includes hiring/scheduling and costing projects, in addition to literally taking everything apart and putting it back together and painting it all before we open. It requires a small army and my General keeps everyone focused on our intensive mission. Then comes the changing of menu boards and cash registers, food safety classes, ordering of all the inventory and a few hundred other details for these units, each of which has a distinct product offering. It is not rocket science, actually it is just fast food ... er, comfort food, like: funnel cakes, monster burgers, smoothies, self-serve FroYo, pizza, elephant ears, gyros etc.
By the time opening day rolls around on the Friday after Labor Day each year … I'm ready for a vacation. But like some of the thrill rides at the Fair, the fun has just begun and we all have to buckle in and hold on tight, as the next few weeks go by fast and furious. The insanity of the hours are brutal enough to cause about 12% of the work force to quit within the first three days. Those that survive to that point, have a decent chance of making it to the end … IF they are not pilfering.
Yes, it is endemic to many of the Fair workers to find a way to try to rip off the boss (if not the customer too). My first year, I had to fire 54 team members in 17 days for "misappropriation of company funds." I guess in the past, nobody felt they wanted to take on the hard work of figuring out who, how and when this was taking place. Training in my past had me very prepared for this type of task and it is as close as I'd ever want to come to law enforcement. In recent years, I've had less than 10 employees terminated per year for pilfering, which makes for a more enjoyable season for all.
Our sales during the Fair would make an average fast food restaurant very happy for an entire year! It is usually so busy that the managers don't stop to eat their first meal until 10 p.m. when the crowd starts to wind down for the night, several hours before we leave and it is even later on weekends. Working on cement day in and day out and walking an average of 12 miles of per day is not for everybody … no less when you're my age. During last year's Fair, I logged 316 hours for the 17 days/nights and that doesn't include the set-up or break down periods. That would typically equate to two months of work in a "real" job. I am not complaining though, as I am the one who continues to commit to return and do it again each year.
As crazy as this may sound, and in reality, there is part of me that really loves the challenge that each year presents. We've had fires that have burned down units, employees arrested on their way to work, our commissary chef quit one year two days before the Fair and last year my top mechanic did so the night prior to the Fair. So dealing with adversity is part of the "fun" and somehow, we all keep coming back for more. Fortunately, I've maintained the loyalty of my management team and we enjoy working together. Maybe it is the adrenaline rush? In quiet contemplation, I've tried to figure out the reason why I continue to return each year, beyond the paycheck itself. All I can come up with is this: after doing my wine writing and other FTLOP daily duties mostly from a chair in front of a computer the majority of the year; the Fair presents a dynamic so vastly different, that it can only be described as a quantum leap. Whether it is the fast pace, the inordinate test of multi-tasking skills or just doing something that returns me to my F&B roots for a short period of time … this is the ultimate love/hate affair. The love part mostly comes the day after the Fair ends and I take my managment team for our first real dinner (and some great wine) for the first time in weeks.
As you've read before; after the Fair and tearing everything apart, sanitizing and winterizing our units, I leave the fairgrounds, return home long enough to kiss my family, do laundry, pack and within 24-48 hours, I'm on an airplane to Portugal for the Port Harvest Tour. The personality metamorphosis required to be a personable and conscientious guide with our guests on tour, is every bit as ambitious an effort as working the Fair itself! I can't begin to explain what that's like.
Although I've already been involved doing lots of project work for the past few weeks, (in preparation for the 2011 Fair) it all really begins tomorrow. Tension is running high and I think I'll have a glass of Port, thank you!