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The Good & The Bad on Food Concessions

We’re into day three of the Central Wyoming Fair & Rodeo. The Carnival opens before the rest of the Fair and Rodeo and we’ve been selling donuts and frozen drinks during the Carnival hours. We don’t have to but since people are here it’s an opportunity to make some more dough (pun intended). The actual Fair starts Tuesday, which seems odd. Evidently the whole town of Casper closes down and everyone comes out for the parade and opening of the fair. It’s a long day for me. We are supposed to be open by noon and close by midnight. That translates into 11am to 12:30am for me or maybe a little longer.

The last three days have been erratic and I’m concerned that this show has too many food vendors. One problem with working food concessions at a Carnival, the Carnival brings they’re own food wagons with them in addition to the ones the organizer admits. While there is no other mini-donut vendor, there are a few funnel cake vendors.

You’re goal is to make back your booth fee in the first day if not two days. It took us two days to make back the booth fee and we almost clear of the traveling expenses to get here.

Working an event for a first time is always nervous. In this case, I think I could possibly have the worst location for a food vendor-which is right next to the entrance. When people arrive, they are too excited about seeing what else there is to offer to stop and order donuts at the gate. I do get the exit traffic, but I would sure like to get some more steady traffic for the other 7 hours or more of the show.

I’m going to see if there were any last minute cancellations and move closer to the midway (the actual mid-point, not what the organizer calls the widway). But we’re out of the red into the black (barely).

Scheduling is probably the most important part of running a food concession business. You have to plan a route and send out applications (with checks) months in advance and then work hard to fill rejections or gaps based on a reasonable travel distance from the last show. We planned out 10 events from June through the end of September. Already we’ve had to scrap two of those events despite the acceptances and cashed checks.

One event that we applied in May decided to change their event dates by almost three weeks- IN JULY! This conflicted with another show and we had to demand our fee back based on the fact that they changed the dates less than three weeks before we were supposed to show up!

Another show we had to work hard to get accepted and when they cash our check for the $360 entry fee and send us a contract they tell us the health permit for a two day show is going to be another $375! We were able to get out of that show as well but we’re waiting for the check in the mail.

It’s looking like you’ll need about $3-4,000 for a summer season saved up to pay for all the booth fees and the early health permits before your start stashing cash based on sales.

Another big problem is the reported attendance and the actual attendance. We worked a show in Springville, Utah that reported something like 35,000 people over a three day period. Things may have changed but I would be surprised if there were more than 10,000 people at that event. As a result our income figures were grossly behind projections. In fact, we lost money on that event because of the travel costs.

When planning we try to figure a median income number per working day to estimate and plan for the gross sales of the season. This way I can add more shows if needed to hit a gross sales number. We try to figure $500 per day in sales on average. I can make a LOT more than that but we also had days where we’ve earned a LOT less. The average sales per day figure is dependent on your product. If you sell meals, your number will be a lot higher. If you just sell one product, like Kettle Corn, your number may be lower.

After working a show, if the average sales don’t work out for the duration of the show- you’ll probably want to find another show next year to replace this dog.

Most food concession that are independent are local. We, of course, are not. We travel with the 34′ motorhome, a 12′ trailer, and a Chevy Suburban. Finding a place to park the motorhome for free is critical. You simply can’t afford to pay $20-$40 per night at a KOA while working shows. After your fuel costs, it REALLY eats into profit. Big shows like many county and state fairs have full RV hookups available for a price or you can dry camp in one of the parking lots. Here in Casper, we are parked in the south parking lot and it cost us $12 for a parking pass. They have a sewer dump pump out location on the grounds we can use for free. We have to pay attention to our power consumption and use the generators or engine to recharge the batteries now and again, but otherwise it’s quiet and safe and most importantly- damn near FREE.

The fuel really adds up. I’ve tried to plan a route where we only had about 6 hours of driving between shows to minimize the fuel costs. This season we opted to bring the Suburban along because I was real nervous about the reliability of the motorhome since we just bought it and haven’t used it that much. After all, it is 15 years old, a repo, and has over 100,000 miles on it. So far, fuel costs for both vehicles has costs us about as much as our entry fees.

Most of our product has a long shelf life. The donut mix is good for at least a year, the bottled drinks who know how long they’ll last, and the frozen drink concentrates are good for several months. Nevertheless, we still have to pay attention to stock items like cups, lids, straws, stirring sticks, trays, bags, oil, and sugar. Believe it or not, there’s places in Colorado and Wyoming where you can’t find a Walmart or Sam’s Club. Some items I just have to have shipped. We’ve been lucky to be able to ship most items general delivery to a local post office where we’ll be working. On some occasions when we have to ship UPS, we request a ‘hold for pickup’ at the local service center at a close by town.

Banking has been a problem. We have a Bank of America account that we use to write checks for health permits and entry fees. Who would have thunk we would have a problem depositing money in a Bank of America account. Well, we couldn’t find a single BoA in Utah, or Northern Colorado. There’s maybe three branches in all of Wyoming. I was on the phone asking how I could deposit cash into our account from a remote location wince they didn’t have any branches near us. Their answer was you can’t.

We ended up having mail USPS money orders to my Dad who said he would deposit them for us. You’re pretty screwed though is you needed to get money in the bank ASAP to cover a charge or write a check (ask me how I know).

Travel days are tough. Hil drives the Suburban with the two kids, which inevitably has at least one or two crying spell from the children. I drive the motorhome, which currently tows the trailer. We found the Suburban Diesel doesn’t like the high altitude mountain climbs with a 3,000 lb trailer following a motorhome going 22 mph up a steep grade. The motorhome hardly notices at all. The motorhome is dramatically quieter than the suburban because it has no car stereo and no screaming children. We bought some cheapo walkie-talkies and it helps a ton to stay in contact while driving and to stay amused and awake on longer trips.

We have to basically clean house before moving the motorhome and find a home for anything that could fly around and create havoc while on the road. We dump the tanks and refill water before getting on the road to make sure we’re ready for the next show.

We have a propane/100v Dometic fridge in the motorhome, which is a brilliant invention. It sips the propane but can produce ice in the small freezer. Our model has two doors top and bottom and is about twice as big as a dorm fridge. We can easily hold enough provisions for about a week of fresh food and maybe a little longer thanks to the freezer.

The downside, once I start working shows, we don’t have time to cook. For example, here in Casper, I don’t get back to the motorhome until midnight or later for all of the 9 days of the show. So I end up eating sandwiches or crappy fair food.

Saving the best for last, the money! It’s a cash business. We still are required to report and pay sales tax to each county and state we work. A lot of times they come by and hand out envelopes with a form to calculate your payment. It’s not horrific.

When I was working in construction as a contractor or developer I could potentially earn $100 an hour for my time. After the economic fall out when I was working renovations, I charged $25 an hour for my time. This business can be all over the place. On one day I can easily earn $100 per hour. The next day, I might make less than if I worked at McDonald’s. You’re hope is to cut out the bad shows and find good shows to meet your financial needs.

Today for example, I worked from before 3pm to after midnight. Let’s call it 10 hours. My gross sales were $385. That’s $38.50 per hour (less all the overhead) for basically serving donuts intermittently and reading a book. I would actually consider that a BAD day working concessions.

For shorter shows you need to make A LOT more per hour. For longer shows, the days can average together with lows and highs to be very acceptable.

Traveling from show to show like we do, it’s interesting how some places feel very inviting and others leave a sour taste in our mouth. It’s been very enlightening to see such a diverse cross section of communities as we traveled. It helps us pinpoint how and where we want to live our life. The jury is still out but Mexico still takes the cake.

You know an ICE COLD draft beer in Mexico is a very affordable price of approximately $1.25! Click Here to Buy Us a Beer.

4 comments to The Good & The Bad on Food Concessions

  • I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing!

  • Wade

    thinking about doing this- your article was very helpful…not necessarily an escape from my 11 hour workdays huh.

  • big cheese

    Hi Wade-

    There’s good and bad for sure. It’s no escape from working, quite the contrary. The big advantage, your the boss. We get by on pretty much poverty level income because we scrapped darn near all the responsible, socially accepted, upwardly mobile overhead to get down to bare bones and do what is really important to us- live on a boat 4-6 months a year.

    I just reviewed my income and expense spreadsheet to date. We have three shows left for a total of 23 work days and have completed about the same, so we’re at the midway point right now. We have been lucky to make our bare minimum per day income numbers but our expenses are higher than we expected- largely due to the second vehicle and mechanical problems.

    But consider this, we’ll work about 67 days this year, not including a setup day and a breakdown day (about 3 hours max each) before and after each show. I’ll work somewhere about 800 hours on work days alone not including driving, repair, setup, and breakdown. For that, we’ll make barely enough to spend November, December, March, April, and May on our boat cruising the Sea of Cortez.

    Is it worth it? That’s for you to decide.

    Thanks for reading.

  • I think that sounds like a real good trade off of time JC. 2 1/2 months for 5 months of cruising is good math!