The New Mexico State Fair is back, but a treat on a signature stick may not be.
At least not in the concessions of Damacio Otero.
“I couldn’t find a foot-long corn dogs anywhere,” said Otero, owner of Casa de Fruta.
Otero, who has been a salesman at the state fair for about 35 years, said he was told the manufacturers were understaffed.
“They have enough products but not enough people to make them, to meet the demand,” he explained.
Otero can understand. Every summer before the fair, the Albuquerque relies on workers to help it turn a “junk heap” into a “beautiful” food stall. This year, he is shorthanded.
“I’m so busy right now,” said Otero, 80, in the weeks leading up to the show, as he worked at the stand himself. “I can’t get enough help, or (help) who really wants to work, so I’m busy building there.”
Otero is not alone. Other dealers, returning to the exhibition grounds for the first time since before the pandemic, are facing supply chain disruptions and a nationwide labor shortage. While sellers are generally optimistic about the festivities, which begin Sept. 9 at Expo New Mexico, the event may look a little different this year.
Earlier this month Rex Thompson, burger-flipper chef at Rex’s Hamburgers, was also wondering how he would organize his stand. Thompson, whose father started selling at the fair in 1971, said it could be done in just days – if he had help.
“It’s just me, I’m not kidding,” Thompson said about two weeks before opening day. “I hope to find at least two more. If I can find two (workers), we will.
During the fair, Thompson, also from Albuquerque, runs his 40ft by 16ft booth with 10 people.
Even though he’s tried Facebook and temp agencies, Thompson’s list of workers for this state fair isn’t as long as he would like.
In the “old days,” Thompson kept a notebook full of names of people who would come and want to work.
“Now you don’t get any more,” he said. “I mean none.”
Arizona-based Yellowman Fry Bread, a recent addition to the New Mexico State Fair, serves Native American cuisine at events in the Southwest.
Tina Yellowman, owner of the business with her husband Roland, said she too has felt the strain of working this year.
“I thought it was just us,” she said. “And then talking to the other suppliers, nobody wants to work. So it was very difficult and I hope things improve.
Until they do, people just need to do multiple jobs, Yellowman said.
Yellowman said inflation, exacerbated by labor shortages, is noticeable this year.
“Shopping is probably the hardest issue now because the food has really blown up a lot and there isn’t a lot on the shelves,” she said.
Dan Mourning, managing director of EXPO New Mexico, said some vendors even had to pull out of the fair altogether because they just didn’t have enough products to serve this year.
Those who remain are finding ways to adapt, he said.
Some suppliers are simplifying their menus to adapt to new realities.
Thompson said his family’s stall has served just about anything you can at one point or another, although burgers have always been the backbone of their business. Now, they’ve returned to a simple menu, focusing on what they do best and making sure they can feed viewers in a timely manner, he said.
Otero has cut seven of the more complicated items from its menu, although it still offers its labor-intensive chocolate frozen bananas because they are so popular.
Gil Stewart, owner of the Albuquerque-based Native Cafe, views concession stands as glorified banquets. It’s about organizing the right amount of food and having enough staff to handle the demand, and Stewart – whose business derives all of its revenue from the State Fair and two other events in New Brunswick – Mexico – said he liked the challenge of trying to meet an uncertain challenge. and constantly changing demand.
Despite the hardships, concession business owners said they were happy to serve their food. Mourning said he expects the turnout to be “phenomenal” as more than 67% of New Mexicans were fully immunized last week and people can’t wait to get out. Participants in the fair will be asked to present proof of vaccination.
More than any other event, the fair brings a constant flow of humanity to its booth, Thompson said.
Yellowman noted that the other dealers are becoming like family.
Otero, who said he was asked why he continued to run a stall at his age, said it was simply because he loved the fair and the people it put in its way.
Stewart said he looks forward to the adrenaline rush he feels when he sees people 25 depths at his booth, and he and his team serve them as fast as they can.
“I love it,” said Stewart. “It’s not like work for me, really. … I love the excitement.