Food from the fair
By Sarah Hall
I traveled more than 400 miles, all the way to Manchester, Tenn., before making the acquaintance of Rowan County food vendors Danielle and Derek Porter.
While I was covering the famous Bonnaroo Music Festival on a farm near Manchester in June, a comment left by Melissa Utley on our Bonnaroo blog on the Salisbury Postables site alerted me to the fact that I wasn’t the only Salisburian at the festival. Her brother and sister-in-law, concessionaires Derek and Danielle Porter, were somewhere among the throng of 80,000 festival-goers.
Looking for one particular stand among so many at an event of this magnitude was a little like trying to find a curly fry in a haystack, but at last I found them. For five years in a row, they’ve had the same primo spot, directly facing the main Bonnaroo stage.
It wasn’t the best time for an interview. They were busy supplying concert cuisine to a hungry clientele. And the Racounteurs were performing on the main stage, so singer Jack White was drowning out the questions.
But early the next day, before the crowds returned, Danielle had some time to tell what it’s like to live the life of a modern-day gypsy.
The Porters, along with their concession crew, most of whom are from Salisbury, travel to festivals and fairs all over the country.
At this year’s Bonnaroo, Danielle said she was especially excited about being so close to Pearl Jam and Widespread Panic, although she usually “has her face in the fire” and can’t really watch.
She loves this kind of music and most of the bands, but it can get really loud. Danielle says last year she thought the band Tool would make her ears bleed.
Most of the fairs and festivals Danielle works are easier on the ears. I ran into the Porters again in July at FloydFest in the beautiful Virginia Mountains. When asked which of the many places she works each year is her favorite, she chose FloydFest. It has a relaxed pace, the people are laid back and happy, the surroundings gorgeous and the music is great.
Danielle inherited the food-vending gene from her father, who started a concession business, State Fair Foods, more than 30 years ago. Danielle started her own business, 2Sisters Food Concessions, with her sister Jenny Darby. Danielle eventually bought out Jenny’s share of the company. That’s why this husband-and-wife business is called “two sisters.”
Danielle then took over her father’s business, with her father and another sister, Becky, as shareholders in the company. Sister Becky also has her own concessions business, the Italian Eatery.
When Danielle goes to festivals, she’s 2sisters. At fairs, she is State Fair Foods.
When it comes to fair food, it’s a family affair. When I caught up with them again here at home, at the Rowan County fair, Danielle was working in Becky’s pizza stand and her sister was in the sausage joint on the corner.
Asked to relate some outrageous carney moments and stories from the road, Danielle recalled several.
One of her favorites was as follows.
“Last year in Kansas, at the Wakarusa Music Festival, a man came up to Derek and me and introduced us to his fiancee. We were a little confused as to why until he explained that the year before he had met her in the line at our stand. They romanced over a foot-long corndog and fell in love.
“This year at Wakarusa, they returned as a married couple and celebrated the anniversary of their meeting over ó guess what ó foot-long corn dogs.”
A less pleasant story is about another couple, at the West Virginia State Fair, who came up to the stand and purchased a Polish sausage sandwich, undeterred by the fact that the man had no teeth. The lady solved the problem by chewing the sandwich and feeding it to the man like he was a baby bird.
“I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” says Danielle. “It’s burned into my brain.”
She says a moment they revel in happened at Nashville River Stages in Tennessee.
“G Love and the Special Sauce were playing at a stage across from our booth. We were busy serving when suddenly we heard G Love start to freestyle about sweet potato fries.
“We all froze in amazement. He was freestyling about us! Customers were high fiving us and taking pictures.”
Derek says, “You have to have a great sense of humor in order to stand next to someone for 15 hours a day, 10 days straight in a cracker jack box.” They find creative ways to pass the time during slow hours, such as having fun with the rookies.
Its something of a tradition in the concession world to initiate “greenhorns” by sending them on wild goose chases for items that don’t really exist like “light bulb grease” or one of the Porters’ favorites, an “onion stretcher.”They send the rookie to another concessionaire friend for one of these items and that person sends them to another stand. When the greenhorn comes back with something that might represent an “onion stretcher,” like last year when their gopher came back with a paint roller, they embellish further by telling them that they got the left- handed onion stretcher, and they need the right handed one. So the process begins all over.”Eventually someone breaks character and the joke is ruined, but not until we all have a good chuckle,” Danielle says.
The vendor business is seasonal, so they are off during the winter months, but Danielle doesn’t take it easy. She puts her degree in exercise science from East Carolina to good use, assisting with the girls’ basketball teams at East Rowan High School. She’ll be head coach of the JV team this year, although she’ll miss tryouts because she’ll be working at the Coastal Carolina Fair in Charleston, her last fair of the year.
Derek keeps himself busy working for his brother-in-law’s business and on his father-in-law’s cattle farm.
When the weather warms up in the spring, they will be back out on the festival circuit.
Danielle explains why they do it. “Every day on the road is an adventure, which is why we love what we do. It provides us with the freedom to experience different people and environments while administering our own path, on our own terms. Owning an enterprise is truly the American dream.”
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