From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Fair Entrepreneur

“What would you like today?” our teenage daughter Erin asked the next customer in line. The woman placed an order for an award-winning Country Fair Cinnamon Roll. “I always come to the State Fair to buy the cinnamon rolls,” she said to Erin. Then, looking around, she asked quietly, “But does your mother know you’re working here?”

Unfortunately, general fairgoers’ perceptions of most people who travel and work at fairs is both demeaning and wrong. You know: “Lock up the chickens and hide the kids, the nomads are coming to town!” But working behind those fair booths is an ensemble of entrepreneurs who have combined their love for travel and meeting people with an ability to make very good livings serving not only their own home communities, but communities around the country. And, yes, we do have homes. For us, it’s in a small California Sierra Nevada mountain community, except when we’re at our villa (formerly owned by the founder of Tupperware) on the property in Costa Rica.

As the owners of Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls—a mobile food concession company—the lifestyle we have chosen for our family is not what most people would consider traditional or “normal.” And in their view, from inside their safety zones, they’re right, but a traveling business fits our personalities and has provided many positive opportunities for our three daughters.

Like any entrepreneur, we started small, changing products that better suited us and better matched our chosen markets. Fortunately, our businesses have been successful. My husband, Eldon’s, background is in inventing and manufacturing coin-operated amusement machines, so placing them at fairs was a natural outlet. From amusement machines, we expanded into Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice, served from a seven-foot-tall fiberglass orange. Our next entrepreneurial adventure was renting baby strollers and wheelchairs to fair patrons; we built that business until we owned and operated the largest stroller rental business in the country.

For the past twenty-odd years we have focused on one product—our exclusive, made-from-scratch-as-you-watch, served-hot-from-the-oven Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls. It’s a product concept now used successfully by other baking companies. Our mobile bakery is designed to showcase the full production process; the hypnotic aroma of fresh baked bread and cinnamon draws people to our fair locations like bees to honey. For thousands of families around the country, our delicious cinnamon rolls have been a fair tradition much longer than airport and mall franchises have been selling them. Per our company slogan, our exceptional cinnamon rolls “Bring Back the Memories®” of good times and cozy comfort.

Our “Mama-Papa” company started with one small mobile bakery, and we now operate multiple trailers at fifty or so events per year, often at multiple locations within each fair. And we travel in a modern recreational vehicle that provides our family with comfortable living facilities including bathrooms, showers, and a kitchen. These are big investments.

But there’s still that perception that we are wandering nomads and that our children suffer because, from May to October each year, our family is on the road. In reality, we have the good fortune to be contributing members of many communities—certainly with our neighbors in California and Costa Rica. But we also consider the “fair families” a community whose members are our friends and whose kids have been the playmates of our three daughters for their entire lives. Our fair families provide many things for the local communities in which they travel and conduct business: entertainment, special exhibits, new products, lots of great-tasting food and much-needed money in way of rental space costs and sales tax contributions.

Entrepreneurs are independent thinkers, looking for that perfect opportunity to meld their personal beliefs and lifestyles with a business that allows them to be themselves. Our business has allowed our family the opportunity to work hard together, then have time to play hard together. Our May-to-October working season allowed us, as parents, to participate actively in our daughters’ and their friends’ school sporting activities. Our daughters had the only “Room Daddy” at the school. We became the permanent chaperones for field trips and dances. The Halloween carnivals had professional food booths, and the volleyball club used our cinnamon roll trailer to earn money for years, even after our girls graduated.

We know that our three daughters, Dara, Erin and Ryan, have learned hands-on life experiences from growing up and working at fairs. They are self-confident and self-sufficient. They learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. Owning and operating their own Frozen Fruit Bar concession at age twelve enabled them to learn business skills firsthand, from establishing valuable work ethics to how to manage money, from ordering inventory to learning how to handle and serve food safely. And they have learned how to accept responsibility, take business risks to grow their business and enjoy the financial rewards that come from hard work.

Our chosen career path has also contributed to our daughters’ education in many other ways. The girls have learned lessons in geography, math, history, political science, ecology, agriculture and art through everyday life experiences, both at fairs and during our travels. World travel is our passion; our lifestyle has allowed us the time and financial means for our family to travel literally from Katmandu to Timbuktu. And the life-changing lessons gained by the girls through travel have been priceless, including swimming in the Amazon to witnessing the cultures of African tribes. We have visited “fair friends” and their families in Switzerland, Argentina, Peru, Zimbabwe and Mexico and made new friends, from Costa Rica to the United States, all of whom have given our family insights into many cultures.

Without any doubt, we love our nomadic lives. And now we are passing the future of our business to our daughters and their families, and many other “fair families” are doing the same. The next generation has been well trained and is eagerly prepared to face the challenges and rewards of our “unconventional lifestyle.”

So to answer that woman’s question to Erin, yes, I do know where our daughters are working, and we are proud of them!

Janis Dale

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