Concessions Bring Flavor to Region’s Many Festivals

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There’s no shortage of fairs and festivals throughout northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania where you can spend your weekends at all summer. Through mid-September, something is on the schedule every week.

Some are major draws, such as the Canfield Fair over Labor Day weekend, while others, such as Grove City Strawberry Days, find smaller audiences.

But no matter where you go, there’s always one constant: food.

“The Columbiana Street Fair is amazing,” says Ed Snitzer, owner of Jaam Concession by Ed. “I can’t believe how busy it gets. We’ll have a line down the road and people act like they’ve never eaten before.”

Concessionaires such as Snitzer spend their summers on the road, making their way from festival to festival across the region. For Snitzer, who started as a vendor in 1990, the schedule hits the big names in the area and has over the years been whittled down.

“It’s the ones now that I’ve picked out, the ones I want to do,” he says. “I’m getting older and don’t do as many. We’ve given up spots at some smaller ones.”

For others, making appearances is a matter of tradition. The first expansion of DiRusso’s Sausage outside the family grocery store in Lowellville was to take Adeline DiRusso’s recipe to area festivals in 1963. That business took on a life of its own, says Amanda Sciola, sales and marketing manager.

“It grew so much that they had a production plant built to facilitate it. The concession business returns us to our roots,” says Sciola, whose first job with DiRusso’s was at one of the company concession stands. “A lot of these festivals, we’ve been at for 40 or 50 years.”

Among the regular stops for DiRusso’s Sausage trailers are the Canfield Fair, Youngstown Italian Festival, the Circleville Pumpkin Show near Columbus and the Black Walnut Festival in Spencer, West Virginia. The company owns six concession trailers and has also licensed its name and products to other vendors.

While vendors can make treks of thousands of miles over a summer – Sciola says DiRusso’s travel range is a five-hour radius from Youngstown – smaller vendors can find success at smaller events.

Since Marla Herrmann started The Big Green Thing food truck in 2011, she’s made trips to church festivals, Federal Frenzy and The Youngstown Flea market. “That was the goal of being on the street. I wanted people to see me on the street so that I could get into events with large groups of people,” she says. “Being on the street, you don’t know when people are going to stop by.”

Skipping the larger fairs in the area has largely been a matter of cost, she says. Spots at the Canfield Fair, for example, can run up to $2,500 each and her truck takes up three spots. Herrmann avoids fairs with entry fees above $75 and those that charge admission. “They’re already paying to get in and they don’t like to pay for food too,” she explains.

All three vendors say that festival attendance – which itself has its own array of factors affecting it – is among the key figures they consider when choosing where to go.

“Every festival organizer says they’re going to get 75,000 people,” Herrmann says with a laugh. “I only get 10% of the people who attend eating at my truck. If you have 200 people, that’s 20 dishes I’m putting out and if I pay $100 [for a spot] I make zero that day.”

One of the biggest influences on attendance is the weather and vendors often spend as much time looking at years past as they do the upcoming forecast. At the offices of both Jaam Concessions and DiRusso’s Sausage are folders that keep track of attendance, sales and weather.

“If the weather’s good, we’ll do [the same as last year] plus a little bit more. We try to keep well-stocked,” Jaam’s Snitzer says. “To me, when someone says they’ve run out of food, that’s poor organization and poor planning.”

DiRusso’s employs a similar method, Sciola says, with daily logs including weather and entertainment at the fair. To avoid running out of food, staff refer to its records and, as a further safety measure, the company has stock trucks full of frozen sausages should a stand run out.

Among them, the trio of vendors says that just selling food isn’t why they spend their weekends toiling away in cramped concession stands. It’s the reaction to the food. DiRusso’s has been a staple at the Canfield Fair – which draws more than 400 food vendors – more than 50 years, with some its stands in the same spots for decades.

“We still work a couple events and it’s never, ‘Ugh, we have to work in a trailer all weekend.’ We kind of get excited to get out of the office, to do something different and meet face to face with our customers,” Sciola says.

Pasta and bread bowls at Jaam Concessions have their own following, Snitzer says, and he sees customers come back year after year.

“I enjoy the customers. I like feeding people. So it’s always nice to get people a good meal they enjoy,” Snitzer says.

And Herrmann relishes the delight customers have when they try her dishes made with fresh veggies bought at area farmers markets.

“The creativity of making something new and the expressions on people’s faces when they take their first bite and when they come back and tell me about it, it’s all worth it,” she says.

Pictured: Ed Snitzer, owner of Jaam Concessions by Ed, keeps weather and attendance records to plan for future festivals.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.