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Business/Economy

Ready for a corny dog & turkey leg at the state fair? Be patient — there's a labor shortage.

09242021_Fletchers State Fair_KC-4.jpg
Keren Carrión
/
KERA News
Fairgoers wait in line for Fletcher's Corny Dogs on opening day of the State Fair of Texas, on Sept. 24, 2021.

Texans are eager to return to the in-person fair, but they may have to wait a little longer to get their favorite treats due to a scarcity of workers.

At the State Fair of Texas, the smell of smoked turkey legs wafts through the air at a Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que stand. Devonte Wade, a Smokey John’s employee, greets customers and takes orders.

The 24-year-old Wade, who’s worked the fair for seven years, says it’s a little different this year because it’s been difficult to find new employees. He’s one of three workers at the stand, but in past years there have been at least five.

“It’s noticeable but we’re managing,” Wade said. “We do get some long lines, but with teamwork you can get anything done as long as everyone knows you need someone here you need someone there, we can get those lines running pretty smoothly.”

Like many other vendors at the fair this year, Smokey John’s has found it difficult to recruit and retain seasonal workers. The labor shortage is also part of a statewide and nationwide trend, especially in the restaurant industry. Some workers say it’s due to workers demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Retailers say they expect shortages to affect the upcoming holiday season.

What labor shortages look like at the state fair

Smokey John’s Co-owner Juan Reaves said staffing has been the biggest challenge of the state fair this year. The restaurant, started by Reaves’ dad in 1976, typically employs up to 125 people for the fair. But this year, they’ve only hired about 75 employees.

In an effort to avoid the build up of long lines and frustrated customers, Reaves said he’s simplified processes and cross-trained his employees.

“We kind of rearranged our booths to where they can be run as efficiently as possible with the fewest number of people,” he said.

Take Wade, who usually works as a “runner” that moves supplies, food and drinks between Smokey John’s’ four stands. He’s also been trained to take orders and help prepare food at the booths when they’re understaffed.

A person puts mustard on a corn dog.
Keren Carrión
A man smears mustard on his corn dog, the most popular condiment at Fletcher’s Corny Dogs. They can go through 1,500 gallons of mustard during the state fair.

Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs, another family-run North Texas business, said they’re also navigating labor shortages. Corny dogs are a staple of the state fair that have amassed a large fan base, inspiring everything from tattoos to Christmas ornaments.

The flagship food vendor usually sells about 500,000 corny dogs from their seven booths each year. Amber Fletcher, who runs the family business with her brother Aaron, said there are usually about 200 workers are making that possible. But this year, Fletcher’s has only around 100 employees at the fair.

“Like all businesses right now, we are seeing the labor crisis,” she said. “We are seeing less employees. We're seeing just how that is affecting the operations.

Vendors look for ways to fill the gap

In an effort to attract more workers, Reaves said the store has also had to spend more on salaries and recruitment. Smokey John’s has raised its base pay by about 20% to attract more workers. They’ve also spent about $5,000 for advertisements on Facebook and Instagram to reach a wider pool of potential employees.

We've actually invested in hiring — something we had never really done before,” the entrepreneur said. “We usually just hire through the restaurant word of mouth.”

As a seasonal business, Amber and her brother Aaron say it’s difficult because they can’t provide the incentives of year-round companies. But like Smokey John’s, they’re offering higher wages and bonuses for those who work the whole fair, bring a friend to work or have a good attitude. And of course, each worker can get a free corny dog each day.

They even started this year’s hiring process about six to eight weeks earlier and spread out their search.

“We're reaching out to churches, colleges, nonprofits, staffing agencies, and they're just seeing this crisis everywhere,” she said.

With staffing shortages happening everywhere, the entrepreneurs say they’re just asking customers to be patient.

‘Happy to be back’ despite staffing challenges

Despite the labor shortage, both Smokey John’s and Fletcher’s say they’re grateful to be back to an in-person fair after last year’s festivities were canceled due to the pandemic.

Though both stores participated in the Big Tex Fair Food Drive-Thru, they said it wasn’t the same. Each business was only able to employ about 20 people last year for the drive-thru.

“We're happy to be back,” Reaves said. “Honestly, one of my dad's missions was always to help people. And one of the best ways you can help people is to give them employment so they can take care of their family.”

This year, he hopes to do that by hiring through the last week of the fair — which ends on Sunday.

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Got a tip? Email Elizabeth Myong at Emyong@KERA.org. You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter @Elizabeth_Myong.