With fairs likely to be canceled throughout the rest of the year, concessionaires have had to get creative with their business model: Enter the fair food drive-thru.
Kevin McGrath, one of the owners of the family business The Best Around Concessions, was ready to sell his signature fair treats at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair back in March. But just hours before the fair opened, Mayor Carlos Gimenez called it off because of concerns over the novel coronavirus. Soon after, fairs in other parts of the country along the route McGrath and his family usually travel announced their cancellations, too.
“We’ve kind of been out of business completely,” McGrath said. “And we’ve all been trying to figure out how to get somewhere and make a dollar in this environment.”
For many, it was a radical adjustment. For example, Marietty Orduna was hired by The Best Around to work the pizza trailer when she was only 15. Now 32, it’s the first fair cycle in 17 years that she hasn’t worked.
“We lost one fair, but these concessionaires, because of fairs closing throughout the country, have lost their entire year,” Fair President Eddie Cora said.
McGrath said he originally tried to sell food out of his trailer back home in Cape Coral. But it was just profitable enough to keep everybody fed.
When he saw other concessionaires start to set up drive-thrus in other parts of the country, he and Ryan Collmer, owner of The Meatball Factory, decided to bring the experience to Miami. And they were shocked by the response to their first weekend, June 19-21. The weekend drew about 3,000 cars, said Cora.
“We were overwhelmed with the response. We weren’t expecting that many people,” Cora said. “And we were extremely grateful that No. 1, people remembered the fair. We underestimated how much people really love coming out here for the food.”
The drive-thru has since added a gyro trailer as well as a cotton candy and candy apple trailer.
McGrath said the response led to a rough beginning, with long waits for customers and traffic that stretched into Coral Way. But he said by the second night, it was under control, with vendors offering both drive-thru and walk-up service.
On Saturday, despite steady rain, cars continued to stream in for the fourth weekend in a row. Collmer said in the first two hours of operation, about 200 cars went through, and McGrath said the average order was $34. The most popular item was elephant ears.
For the last two weekends, the vendors haven’t offered walk-up service because of county restrictions on gatherings of groups over 50 people. Behind the trailers, there are still social distance markings on the floor from the brief period of walk-up allowance, during which customers could also sit in socially distanced tables to enjoy their favorite carnival delicacies.
At the drive-thru, cars come in through the fair entrance at SW 109th Avenue and Coral Way. Cars follow a path that eventually splits into three lines, with three separate registers, where they can choose from fan favorites like roasted corn, turkey legs, gyros, cotton candy and fried Oreos. The cashier then tapes a receipt with the order to the outside of the window — and in the case of rain, inside the window —and cars are ushered into a parked waiting area, where masked runners retrieve the receipt and then grab the separately packaged items from the different trailers before delivering them to the customer.
Since customers order their items all at once, rather than at each individual food trailer, McGrath said the vendors split the profits.
While the money is better than attempting to sell food on the side of the road, McGrath said it’s still nowhere near what they would take in during a regular fair cycle. But that doesn’t mean he thinks fairs should open back up as Florida continues to reopen other businesses, such as theme parks.
“[Since] there are safety rules and regulations and things that have to be met due to this environment, safety is probably possible, but it’s probably not profitable,” McGrath said. “Safety comes first. So to be safe, it may not be worth doing because it costs too much to run a fair or a festival or a food stand if you can’t get the volume that you need.”
McGrath said this weekend is probably the last fair food drive-thru in Miami for a little while. He’ll run a drive-thru in West Palm Beach next weekend and see where it goes from there. But he added he’ll definitely come back to Miami, eventually.
“We’ve seen that sometimes, you can’t continue in the same place forever or it just becomes kind of run of the mill,” McGrath said.
Tishima Johnson made the approximately 30-minute drive on Saturday from Miami Gardens to grab some fair food after seeing the event advertised on Facebook. She usually attends the fair every year.
“It’s a good idea,” Johnson, who waited about 10 minutes to order her food, said. “They probably lost a lot of money by not having the fair, so this is a good way to recoup a little bit of the money that they lost out on.”
The drive-thru will run again Sunday, July 12, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.