Fair Vendors Hold Out Hope for Late-Summer Festivals

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – You can always find the Molnar’s cinnamon rolls stands at the Canfield Fair: they’re the ones with the long line of customers.

Faith McGee grew up working in the traveling concession stand business started by her father, James Molnar.

She began when she was 8 years old, and has been doing it for 52 years. She and her father, James, who turns 80 this year, now co-own Molnar’s Concessions, which operates more than a dozen stands at the Canfield Fair, as well as other events in the region and beyond.

In its more than 50 years in business, Molnar’s has seen many changes. But there has never been a year like this one.

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted the cancellation of festivals and fairs from May through June, and the list keeps expanding into July and even August.

Those who make their livelihood operating food trailers at these events have seen half of their annual business wiped out so far, and are holding their breath that the season can be partially salvaged.

Molnar’s opens a food stand every summer in the parking lot of its Austintown headquarters and warehouse, at Mahoning Avenue and Turner Road. This year, the company has set up three: lemonade, sausage and other sandwiches, and cinnamon rolls.

“People are wanting their fair food,” McGee said. “We  usually only put up one stand there, but people didn’t get to go to church festivals so they didn’t get that taste of fair food.”

McGee said the food stands in Austintown are “our salvation at this time.” 

The biggest event of the year on most local food vendors’ schedules – including Molnar’s – is the Canfield Fair. The six-day fair accounts for about 40% of Molnar’s annual revenues, says McGee.

So far, the Canfield Fair has not been canceled; if it does take place, it could come with limits on capacity that would cut into revenues.

To give a boost to food vendors – and satisfy the palate of those who miss fair food – the Canfield Fair Food Extravaganza will take place June 5 through 7 at the fairgrounds. The drive-through event will include at least a dozen vendors, including Molnar’s, and will run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Admission is free.

French fries, lemon shakes, sausage sandwiches, barbeque, stromboli, noodles, cinnamon rolls, elephant ears and other confections will be sold.

Bergen Giordani, spokesperson for the fair board, said the  event is a way to help vendors who have lost sales this year due to the cancellations of festivals.

McGee is glad the fair is putting on the event. Her company typically offers its food at 20 to 30 festivals and other events each year. So far, 10 of them have been canceled, including the Trumbull County Fair.

Molnar’s has a half-dozen full time workers every season, and hires part-timers to work as needed, including up to 60 for the Canfield Fair.

“Fortunately, they’ve grown with us,” McGee said. “Forty or so of them have full-time jobs but they arrange their vacation time, or come [to the Canfield Fair] after [their day job] to work with us, and they also work all weekend.”

If the Canfield Fair and other events in September are not canceled, McGee said, “we will survive easily.” Molnar’s insurer, she noted, is dedicated to the industry and has reduced her rates this year.

While most of the events and festivals that Molnar’s vends at are in Ohio, the company does travel. It sells its food at festivals as far away as Louisville, Ky.; Nashville, Tenn.; Buffalo; southern Illinois; and Ocean City, Md.

It also is contracted to provide meals for emergency workers through a company called Storm Services. “When hurricanes hit in the South, we set up a camp for workers who restore power,” McGee said. “We provide their breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s usually in the fall. We did Hurricane Michael and Hurricane Florence (in 2018), but nothing last year.”

While traveling food vendors are losing money this year, they are being denied something else that is just as important.

“The connection with our friends out on the road is what we miss the most,” McGee said. “We only see them once or twice a year.”

The food community is like a family, she said. “We help each other out. If one of us needs sugar for lemonade, we just ask another stand.”

Canfield-based Keich Enterprises is another local food trailer vendor that is facing the same hardships – and implementing the same solutions – as Molnar’s.

Keich and its Grandma Lamana food trailers will set up a stand in the parking lot at Southern Park Mall starting this weekend.

The company, owned by Kenny Keich, will also take part in this weekend’s Canfield Fair Food Extravaganza, offering  stromboli.

Keich said he does 30 to 40 events every year, including the Canfield Fair, where he usually has at least six trailers.

He also works at local car shows, flea markets and the Dave and Ed’s Super Auto Shows at the Canfield Fairgrounds. He travels as far as the Circleville (Ohio) Pumpkin Festival, and the Clarion (Pa.) Autumn Festival.

“You want to adapt and overcome and do what you have to to make it,” said Keich, who is optimistic that things will improve as the summer goes on.

“I’m encouraged,” he said. “Canfield wants to have the fair and they’re trying very hard to do so. I think it’s going to happen.”

Keich also works at the Columbiana County Fair, which was canceled by organizers Wednesday evening.

However, three of his bigger festivals have already been canceled: the Crawford County and Butler County fairs in Pennsylvania and the Grape Jamboree in Geneva.

Keich, whose storage area is in the grandstand building at the Canfield Fairgrounds, has been in the business since 1978. “My parents started it, and I am the second generation,” he said.

Pictured: James Molnar, co-owner and founder of Molnar’s Concessions, stands in front of one of his food trailers at his Austintown headquarters.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.