It's a grim year for fans of summer fairs. The 165th annual Big Butler Fair in Pennsylvania's Butler County has been called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The week of fair games, fried food and barns full of prize-winning animals has been a tradition for Butler County since the American Civil War.
Canceled fairs are an obvious blow to local 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs who have been training animals for months to compete in livestock shows. But it's a big hit to food vendors, too.
"I mean, we panicked," Shelby Seivers said. She owns Three Rivers Concessions with her husband Josh. "This is our livelihood. We don't have [other] jobs that we go back to."
The season starts in January for the Seivers. They head to Florida and other southern states to set up trailers at events all over the East Coast. "We run concessions nine or 10 months out of the year," she said. But summer fairs in Western Pennsylvania are the busiest time of the year. The financial hit could permanently harm the business.
In May, the Seivers decided to set up a stand in Grove City, Pa., near their headquarters. They saw lines out to the street for weeks. That inspired them to team up with two other vendor groups to plan a, "fairless food tour." Boyers Ice Cream and John the Greek Food Concessions are also family-run businesses.
Their first stop was about a mile from the Big Butler Fairgrounds. A few social media posts was all it took to get hungry people to stop along the side of state Route 422 for corn dogs, lemonades, sausage sandwiches and funnel cakes.
Workers wear cloth masks, hand sanitizer stations are set up next to the condiments and social distancing is encouraged while waiting in line.
Seivers said she's used to reconnecting with repeat customers at the fair every year, but she got emotional when they started showing up at the roadside set up. "They told, like, all the other people that they know that always come and get sausage," she said. "We have honestly gotten to see so many of the familiar faces that we see at the fairs and it's been so wonderful."
Jason Rice and Chris Worst came out to the food tour during a lunch break. Both men said they saw the trailers while passing by and decided to pay a visit. Rice said the gyro he ordered was a nice consolation in place of the fair — something he and his family have attended for more than 30 years.
Jamil Williams, Kaitlyn Norris, and Abby and Carl Saviano shared a picnic table. The couples didn't know each other, but the taste of freshly squeezed lemonade, corn dogs, and Philly cheese steaks made for good conversation as they chatted over their meals.
Stories like that make Shelby Seivers smile. She says the three families will set up their five food trailers wherever they can fit this summer.
"All three of us are traveling together and we're just going to hit as many places as we can. We've had a lot of people approach us that have parking lots or businesses that have an area big enough for all of us to set up in," Seivers said.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The pandemic has, of course, closed many events across this country, including county fairs. But you can still get a taste of that summertime tradition in western Pennsylvania. Here's WESA's Kiley Koscinski.
KILEY KOSCINSKI, BYLINE: For the first time in more than 160 years, all is quiet at the Big Butler Fairgrounds this summer. But about a mile down Route 422, you can still smell those familiar fair foods.
SHELBY SEIVERS: Chicken tenders, fresh-cut fries, homemade lemonade, Philly cheesesteaks, sausages, burgers - all that kind of stuff.
KOSCINSKI: That's Shelby Seivers. She and her husband, Josh, run Three Rivers Concessions.
SEIVERS: All kinds of different pizzas, calzones, wedgies, crazy funnel cakes and deep-fried Oreos - that kind of stuff.
KOSCINSKI: Vendors like the Seivers family set up food trailers up and down the East Coast starting in January every year. But when the coronavirus reached the U.S., their season got cut short in the spring.
SEIVERS: I mean, we panicked because this is our livelihood. We don't have jobs that we go back to.
KOSCINSKI: So the Seivers set up a stand near their headquarters in Grove City, Pa. It was so successful that they decided to team up with two other families of vendors and set up along the side of the road in Butler County.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, I got a large bacon cheese fry, two corn dogs.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Let me get two more, please.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two more corn dogs?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yep.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Anything else?
KOSCINSKI: Around dinnertime, the parking lot fills up, and people stand 6 feet apart in a line out to the busy street. Jamil Williams saw the menu of fair food favorites listed in a post on Facebook. He and his partner quickly made dinner plans.
JAMIL WILLIAMS: Oh, so I got the cheesesteak. And I got the onions on top of it as well. And it comes with the cheese, you know - you know, the concession cheese. I'm enjoying it. And I got the lemonade as well, the freshly squeezed lemonade. You can't beat it.
KOSCINSKI: Abby Saviano and her husband grabbed a spot at the other end of the picnic table. She was disappointed that the fair was called off but relieved to find she could still satisfy her cravings.
ABBY SAVIANO: I have really bad heartburn being pregnant, so I told him as soon as we got here - I said I need to have lemonade, like, now. And then the corn dogs - like, you can make corn dogs at home, but these are just better to come out here, so.
KOSCINSKI: Seivers says social media has been a huge help in keeping customers in the loop about where the trailers are and where they're going next. But she credits her loyal customers for getting the word out about where to find Seivers' sausage sandwiches and fresh lemonade.
SEIVERS: So then they told, like, all the other people that they know that always come and get sausage. So, I mean, we have honestly gotten to see so many of the familiar faces that we see at the fairs. And it's been so wonderful, honestly.
KOSCINSKI: The Seivers and two other vendor families, Boyers Ice Cream and John the Greek Concessions, plan to stick together this summer. Seivers says they'll bring the fairless food tour wherever they can fit their trailers.
SEIVERS: We're just going to hit as many places as we can. We've had a lot of people approach us that have, you know, parking lots or businesses that have an area big enough for all three of us to set up in. And we can just go and see how it goes.
KOSCINSKI: For NPR News, I'm Kiley Koscinski in Butler County, Pa.
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