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Here's what it's like to be a food vendor at the State Fair of Texas

State Fair of Texas - Crazy Otto's Ordering
Jacob Wells
/
KERA News
Fairgoers place an order at the Crazy Otto's booth during the State Fair of Texas

The State Fair of Texas is the holy grail for some food vendors — and a unique business opportunity.

On the first day of the State Fair of Texas, Yolanda Russotti and her staff at Texapolitan Pizza worked on getting their wood-fired oven ready.

They're first-timers at the fair: Russotti and her husband started a brick-and-mortar restaurant this year in Van Alstyne, north of McKinney, with a Neopolitan pizza meets Texas barbecue concept.

“Just out of the blue, come March, he said, 'You know what? State Fair. Let's just try,'" Russotti said. "It's our first time applying and we actually got in. So I believe that means our product speaks for itself.”

The proud couple's specialty item is a pork belly burnt ends pizza, cooked in the oven made especially for the fair.

Business is practically guaranteed: more than 2 million visitors show up to the fair each year, according to organizers. But getting a spot on the fair’s midway isn’t always so easy.

State Fair of Texas - Texapolitan Pizza
Jacob Wells
/
KERA News
Texapolitan Pizza workers prepping food in their booth at the State Fair of Texas.

Clint Probst, the owner of Crazy Otto’s and Gulf Coast Grill, has been coming for 14 years in a row — his specialty this year is the Cajun Lobster Bisque Croquettes, a semi-finalist for the Big Tex Choice Awards contest — but Probst tried out to be a vendor for five straight years before finally getting in.

The competition is intense, he said. But the hard work was worth it.

“For the locals, it's a great opportunity to make some extra money right before the holidays," Probst said. "We have a lot of people who work for us who have day jobs, and this is kind of their side hustle.”

For vendors like Probst, the fair offers a unique business opportunity.

Last year, the State Fair of Texas brought in nearly $75 million in coupon sales, with most of that money going to food vendors, according to the fair’s annual report. Gross revenue from food and beverage alone topped $48.6 million in 2021.

This year, the fair boasts more than 80 vendors cooking up original dishes like the fried spicy beef empanada, crispy chili dog and the chocolate dipped cheesecake on a stick, according to Melanie Linnear, senior vice president of concessions for the fair. There are also some classics: giant turkey legs, caramel candied apples, and the ubiquitous Corny Dogs.

State Fair of Texas - Milagro Taco Cantina Workers
Jacob Wells
/
KERA News
Milagro Taco Cantina Workers prepare orders during the State Fair of Texas

“We're looking for something different, you know, and creative, (so) that when people look at that product, you know, they giggle," said Linnear, who's worked at the state fair for more than 30 years. "The goal now is to always try to bring in new and different.”

While there are a lot of new businesses on the fairgrounds this year, there's also a lot of familiar faces. It turns out that, for some, working the annual event is a family tradition.

That family atmosphere is why many vendors keep coming back, Linnear said.

“When you look at all of the vendors that are here, some of them are third, fourth generation concessionaires,” Linnear said. Their parents did it, and their grandparents did it before them."

Got a tip? Email Pablo Arauz Peña at parauzpena@kera.org

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Pablo Arauz Peña is the breaking news reporter for KERA News.