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Fair-food vendors come from far and near
People come to the SEMO District Fair for a variety of reasons: the rides, the concerts, the tractor pulls.
But what some people look forward to most of all is the food. From the smoke wafting from barbecue pits to the onions grilling before a generous helping is added to the top of a Polish sausage, the sights, sounds and smells of the food trucks, trailers and stands are a staple of the fair, as are the people and organizations who run them.
"This year we've [had] a lot of people wanting to bring something different," said Larry Burrows, who organizes the outdoor concessions at the SEMO District Fair. "It's all fair food, but it's not the same thing we have all the time."
But while an occasional new vendor makes an appearance at the fair -- this year, a new soda stand found a place along concession row, as well as a cinnamon-roll stand and an ice-cream shop -- many vendors have a long history of selling fried confections at the SEMO District Fair and abroad.
Jeff McKinney comes from a long line of food vendors -- five generations.
"My daddy did it. My granddaddy did it," McKinney said.
The SEMO District Fair has been on the route of McKinney Concessions for years. This is McKinney's 36th year at the fair, he said, though his company's presence at the Cape Girardeau festival goes back further.
"I inherited it from my cousin; he came here before I did," McKinney said.
McKinney works with several members of his family and in competition with others throughout the country.
"We probably have 30 food stands in my family," he said.
McKinney runs three of them.
Though he calls Texas home, he travels all over the Midwest to sell his wares, sleeping in a camper on the fairgrounds when he's on the road, as many vendors do.
Depending on the size and location of the fair, his concession stands offer food such as cotton candy, turkey legs, and hamburgers. This week, his focus is corn dogs and lemonade.
Tony King's concessions also remain a staple of the SEMO District Fair, though the tradition is not as longstanding as McKinney's. King's Food Service Inc., based in Herrin, Illinois, and owned by Tony King's parents, Frank and Vickie King, opened in 1986 and has included the SEMO District Fair as a part of their circuit since 1988.
Beginning with street festivals and small fairs, King's Food Service has grown over the years and focuses on state fairs.
"But SEMO's been so good to us over the years; it's just one of those spots we really enjoy coming down to," King said. "It's kind of home for us."
King's Concessions began with eight stands at the SEMO District Fair, when fewer vendors were present. Now, they have three: Sutter's Taffy near the grandstand, and in the food court, they have King's Taters and another stand offering corn dogs and funnel cakes.
King's isn't limited to the fair route.
"When we come home we have a warehouse company. We do rentals and catering, and we do a lot of corporate events," King said. But "our bread and butter and where we came from has always been the festivals and state fairs."
Burrows said about 60 percent of the vendors travel considerable distances to be a part of the fair.
"But the rest of it, we try to involve the community, because it is their fair, also," Burrows said. "If they show interest, we try to get them in. If they know where I'm at, they're going to come find me."
Jesse Hall is one of those locals. His business, Popcorn Xpress, has had a place at the SEMO District Fair for the last four years, and he's found great success there.
"Every year I've been out here, my sales have almost doubled," Hall said.
Hall sells his popcorn just outside the food court, near the west entrance.
Hall sees his food stand as a hobby for now. He also owns rental properties in Cape Girardeau, which are his priority for the moment.
"As I get closer to retirement and I have more people to manage my properties, I might think about branching out," Hall said.
Other local groups see the fair as an opportunity for fundraising. Grace United Methodist Church and the Men's Club of Trinity Lutheran Church each have food stands on the fairgrounds, as does the 4-H Club.
"Our food stand is our large fundraiser for the year for Cape County 4-H," Lesley Meier, 4-H youth specialist, said. "It's basically how we function. Instead of selling flowers or fruit, we have a food stand at the fair."
Funds raised are used to send children on 4-H-sanctioned trips and participate in contests. It also is an effort to teach life skills to kids.
"This is a way for them to learn about money management and communication and responsibility, all the while having fun with their friends and family," Meier said.
The 4-H stand is another longstanding tradition at the SEMO District Fair, selling foods such as porkburgers and fries to the hungry masses for about 35 years. 4-H youth program assistant Marsha Birk recalled working at the fair herself when she was younger, and said their newest stand near the carnival entrance is a great improvement over previous ones.
"It's a real Cadillac," Birk said.
The SEMO District Fair has grown and evolved over time. The concession vendors may not have the opportunity to observe all that goes on at the fair, but they have noticed one change over the years: more competition.
"We've had competition move in over the years because we were one of the first vendors" at the fair, King said. To stay competitive, King said his company has focused on consistency in customer service, product, and attendance at the fair.
"We've really managed to grow our company at the SEMO District Fair," King said.
McKinney agreed competition has increased over the years -- not only at the SEMO District Fair, but in fair food courts everywhere.
"There's more food in them now than there used to be," McKinney said. "More competition. More of the same food."
Hall said the competition isn't an issue for his business, which offers a variety of flavored popcorn, such as green apple, chocolate and peanut butter.
"Most people who cook popcorn, they cook kettle corn and that's pretty much all they do," he said.
But despite the challenges, the vendors agree the SEMO District Fair is a good place for them.
"But it's still a pretty good little spot when they come," McKinney said, commenting on ever-changing weather that, at times, has kept people away.
King credits fair organizers for making it a welcoming place for vendors.
"They're really good at what they do," King said. "That's why we keep coming back -- really good fair management."