Mid-State Fair

Food vendors look forward to the exposure provided at California Mid-State Fair

Crushed Grape owners Gretchen and Tom Gonyer have been Mid-State Fair vendors for 21 years.
Crushed Grape owners Gretchen and Tom Gonyer have been Mid-State Fair vendors for 21 years. The Tribune

For some folks, the California Mid-State Fair means more than carnival rides and cattle auctions.

It offers vendors the perfect platform to reconnect with loyal customers and attract new ones, all while boosting brand recognition, expanding sales and testing creative new ways to promote their products.

“In our kind of industry, we’re always looking for people — so whatever has the most people, that’s where we want to be,” said Roger Sharp, whose family operates five food stands and four beer booths at the Paso Robles fairgrounds. “The fair gets close to 400,000 people in 12 days.”

"(The fair) just seems like part of the summer to me,” said wine bar operator Gretchen Gonyer, who began her career as a fair vendor selling Mexican food. She and her husband, Tom, have owned The Crushed Grape wine and gift shop in San Luis Obispo for 29 years.

Twenty-one years ago, then-fair CEO Judy King approached her about opening a wine booth.

“She asked my husband and I if we would be interested and we said, ‘Yeah,’” Gretchen Gonyer said.

After checking out similar attractions at other fairs, Gonyer set up a walkup wine tasting bar in the Frontier Pavilion with room for eight people — and a general store selling products made in San Luis Obispo County.

“The first year it was not profitable at all,” she recalled.

So the Gonyers moved to a new location — the Marketplace building near the carnival area — and changed their format to sell wine by the glass. They added a deli as well.

“We’ve always been known as the healthy eating place because we have salads and wraps,” she said, as well as home made tortellini, wine-flavored ice cream and hors d'oeuvres trays featuring cheeses, meats, olives and breads.

Central Coast wine remains the main draw at The Crushed Grape, which now operates a 40-seat wine bar in the Marketplace and a smaller stand just outside the Chumash Grandstand Arena.

“Your business depends on entertainment,” Gonyer said, adding that she’ll double the number of bartenders on duty when there’s a “really hot band” playing. Although the grandstand bar is only open a couple hours each night, closing when the headliner takes the stage, she said sales often rival those of the main location, which remains open from noon to 11 p.m.

The Crushed Grape provides its own entertainment at the main bar: Soul Sauce, which plays blues, rock, reggae and soul favorites while customers sip.

Fairgoers have their pick of vintages from 80 wineries this year, including Eberle Winery and Meridian Vineyards in Paso Robles, Saucelito Canyon Vineyard and Winery in San Luis Obispo and Wild Horse Winery in Templeton.

Gonyer isn’t sure how many hundreds of glasses of chardonnay and pinot noir she and her staff pour each year. She hires 20 to 40 bartenders each year, and also enlists the help of family members and friends.

Although she said the fair is a boon to her business — she won’t disclose exact sales figures — Gonyer said her favorite part is reconnecting with customers and carnival employees.

“Once a year, you see a whole group of people you only see at the fair,” she said, adding that regulars often drop by her booth to say “Hi.” “It means so much. It really does.”

Fair exudes energy

Sharp, whose company owns Good Ol’ Burgers and Tortilla Town in Paso Robles and four Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ locations, has sold food at the Mid-State Fair since his student days.

“I loved the energy. I loved the creativity. I loved the entertainment part of it,” said Sharp, who started selling cinnamon rolls at the fairgrounds at age 16 and acquired a churro cart at 19. “It was, for lack of a better word, a party.”

After graduating from Paso Robles High School in 1984, Sharp went into the food industry full-time.

Today, his company sells burritos, burgers and chicken kabobs at more than 100 events across the United States and Canada. Profits are divided 50-50 between brick-and-mortar restaurants and mobile eateries, he said, noting that both models have their advantages.

Having a permanent location “gives you a little more credibility. It gives you some roots,” Sharp said, while portable food stands offer the chance to experiment and assess trends. “The best thing about the mobile industry is you’re free to do whatever you want. It allows you to be as creative as you want to be.”

Sharp said he’s seen customers’ tastes change over the years.

“People are a whole lot more educated. Their expectations are higher,” he said. “They’re looking for quality more so than they did 15 years ago.”

That said, fairgoers still clamor for fried foods in massive quantities.

“Because (the fair) is only for 12 days, they get one shot to eat whatever it is they want,” Sharp said. “How often do you really eat a fresh-baked cinnamon roll or a funnel cake or a turkey leg?”

Diners can sample food at several Sharp Concepts locations throughout the Paso Robles fairgrounds, including the new Gerardo’s Fish Tacos, which will sell tacos as well as Mexican beer and rum cocktails.

In addition, his sister Susan Sharp runs a Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ stand and two beer stands through her company, West Coast Fairs.

The booths are staffed by about 60 employees, most of them part-timers.

After 25 years as a fair vendor, Roger Sharp said he still enjoys the energetic atmosphere. "When exciting things are going on, we’re able to leverage ourselves and be part of the excitement,” he said, “rather than going, ‘Oh, it’s the fair. I can’t wait until that’s over.’”