CHESTERFIELD — The 100-year-old county fair in Chesterfield returned with an unfortunate minor glitch: a labor shortage.
Because the 2020 Chesterfield County Fair was canceled due to COVID, the Chesterfield County Fair Association team was raring to go this year. However, the Fair’s General Manager Brenda White, as well as fair vendors, encountered a new problem. There was an air of excitement during the fair set-up, but volunteers and seasonal workers were in short supply.
“I’ve always had kids and people stop in here to ask if anyone is hiring, but with schools starting early…it’s just not happening,” said White. “Some can’t come because they’re in school.”
The Chesterfield County School Board approved a pre-Labor Day opening for the 2021-22 school year.
“The vendors would hire the older high school kids to come out and help, but they’re not available now,” said White. “Bird High School located just across the street also extended their school hours causing another reason why the teenagers are not readily available.”
The fair crew is also feeling the loss of the teachers who previously volunteered.
A Pre-Labor Day vs. Post-Labor Day Calendar Survey was conducted by Henrico Schools in 2020 to collect feedback from students, families, and staff.
Some comments favored not cutting summer short so students could work through Labor Day while others responses were happy to do away with the Kings Dominion law.
Passing in 1986, the Kings Dominion law prohibited school divisions from opening before Labor Day unless they qualified for a waiver from the Virginia Board of Education. The decades-old rule intended to boost the state’s tourism industry.
“It always surprised me that education was not a higher priority than workers/business over Labor Day weekend,” stated a survey response. “It is time for this change now that the Kings Dominion Law was finally killed.”
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White had 50% fewer volunteers this year due to the school calendar change. Some volunteers expressed fear of contracting COVID.
“We have a shortage of helpers all over the nation,” said CCFA Office Manager Ronald Miller of Chester.
The CCFA are rolling up their sleeves and taking care of things themselves.
“It takes us about 2 1/2 weeks working 10 to 12 hours a day just to set the fair up,” said Miller. “I’ll be here from nine in the morning until 12 at night.”
“In years past, we’ve had an overflow of volunteers but not this year,” said CCFA Secretary Donnie Yancey. “I’m not sure why people are not working or don’t want to work. Maybe it’s because of the COVID issues. It’s just a different time right now.”
Yancey is not surprised at all because at his regular everyday job with Metro Sealant & Waterproofing, which is also experiencing a labor shortage as well.
“I’ve had an ad out there for a salesperson for over two months now and I’ve probably gotten maybe 15 applicants,” said Yancey. “Normally back before COVID, we would get 100 applicants easily.”
Volunteers used to work two or three days during the nine-day fair period, but now some of them are working five to seven days with some working all nine of them.
“Most us here work our regular full-time jobs and then come to the fair,” said Yancey. “We have board members and volunteers that have taken vacation days to help us during this unprecedented time. It says a lot for them.”
“It’s pretty tiring mentally and physically exhausting having to do all the extra labor,” said CCFA volunteer Katie Horton of Ettrick. “But, it’s worth it.”
Besides being the fair announcer, Horton helps her husband, CCFA Board member Dustin Horton, fulfill some of his ground duties. She moves plants from one location to another, picks up trash as needed and loads and unloads supplies.
White wasn’t the only one feeling the crunch. Monkey wrenches were tossed at vendors, also.
“It’s been a domino effect with vendors not being able to hire help,” said White.
“People who have worked for me before, I don’t know where they’re at,” said Pop Pop’s Kettle Corn owner Hank Boyd. “They’re not responding to calls or texts. I guess they’re laying low.”
Boyd was one of many vendors who informed White they needed assistance finding help to hire. According to White, less than 10 people responded to her ‘help wanted’ posts on social media platforms.
“The Bounce 2 the Moon vendors have inflatables, but unless they find workers, they’ll remain deflated,” said White. “They normally hire high school and college students.”
“This is the first year in 15 years that we’ve had no drivers apply that can pull a trailer,” said Bounce 2 the Moon owner John Farrell of Chesterfield.
Farrell and his wife Tracy have turned away more business this year because of the lack of drivers.
The Farrells received very little response to their job announcements beginning in February on Craigslist and Facebook looking for drivers. Those that did respond were not qualified. As a result, they have suffered an estimated $60,000 loss in business due to a driver shortage.
“Normally, during the April to November season, we have four to five drivers plus me,” said Farrell.
Concessions feel the heat
Fairgoers can simply let their noses lead the way to the row of food vendors which I refer to as “Food Alley.”
Swift Concessions owner Zach Swift of Florida who usually travels with at least five or six people and hires local help upon arrival is experiencing a labor shortage, as well.
He is doing the work of two people bouncing back and forth between his two stands located at opposite ends of “Food Alley.” Swift sells pizza at one concession and traditional fair foods at the other where he had a hot dog smothered in peanut butter and sriracha jelly topped with bacon on his menu.
“I think people are afraid to go outside or don’t have the desire to work. It’s been very weird,” said Swift. “It’s tough on everyone after you take a year off.”
Swift misses the opportunity to hire locals saying, “Walk-ups looking for work sometimes turn out being the next greatest employee.”
I spotted a picnic table covered with onions, so I moseyed on over there.
Zach Cooper of Florida was peeling and preparing onions for Carnival Treat’s Philly cheesesteaks, sausage, and onion petals. It was amazing that he wasn’t shedding any tears.
Carnival Treats operated a concession stand at the Chesterfield County Fair for the first time. They sell funnel cakes, fried pickles, donut burgers, fresh-cut fries, corn dogs, fried Oreos, lemonade, and much more. Owner Karissa Yoder of Lecanto, Fl. had plenty to say about experiencing a lack of workers.
“We’re usually able to go into a fair and hire a few people for a week,” said Yoder. “Currently, we don’t have any traveling employees. We did in the past, but we can’t get people who want to work full-time.”
Recently, Yoder placed an ad but only had a dozen people respond.
“Twelve people agreed to work throughout the month-long State Fair Meadowlands event in New Jersey, but only two of them made it the entire time,” shared Yoder. “Some of the others only showed up for a day or two.”
“Fortunately, we are a family business,” added Yoder. “There are six of us, and we try to rely on ourselves when we can.”
Yoder and her husband became friends with local hires over the years and they actually fly them in from other states to help them during this strange time. She really appreciates their loyal friend AJ Ross.
“AJ from our town is in demand. He’s had multiple offers from other vendors who are also experiencing a hard time hiring help at fairs,” said Yoder. “He’ll be flying in to help us.”
Other fish to fry
MacBrand Foods concessionaire manager Dan Bohanan had a mouthful to say, “We’re shorthanded three people for the first Saturday which is typically our busiest day.”
Some MacBrand Foods concession stand workers are in-house from their other business Roy’s Big Burger in Richmond.
Why were they shy three workers?
“They had other fish to fry,” Bohanan said. “Normally, two Roy’s Big Burger employees work at the fair, but they didn’t have the staff to handle both locations.”
According to Bohanan, employees are doing roughly 20% to 30% more work.
“There are supposed to be 11 of us in here. That’s going to be hard to do,” said Bohanan. “If I have four registers up there, that means I have eight upfront, and that only leaves three cooks for the fryer, grill, funnel cakes, and turkey legs.”
Bohanan stressed that he as well as his coworkers and customers are disappointed that people don’t want to work.
“It’s affecting us mentally, and we’re getting worn out physically having to work twice as hard,” said Bohanan. “It’s hard to compensate. And, you really can’t compensate. All you can really do is keep steady. That’s the best thing you can do.”
How will Bohanan cope with the inevitable cranky, impatient people waiting in long lines?
“Most of us will just pick up the pace and get them what they need so they can move along,” said Bohanan. “The sweltering summer heat also causes some fairgoers to be a little crabby and impatient.”
In 2007, Big Hubert’s BBQ began humbly beneath a tent at the Chesterfield County Fair. Owner Barry Clark of Chester stated that his BBQ food truck is not experiencing the labor shortage as much as other vendors.
“The vendors who may be traveling trying to pick up fair help. I know they’re like…who’s going to help us,” said Clark. “We’ve stopped traveling to events because of it.”
Clark definitely feels the labor shortage pain in his wallet especially with his plumbing business All City Drain Cleaning of 31 years.
Products needed to operate Clark’s businesses have skyrocketed in price.
“If you need a product and can get it, the price now compared to last year at this time has probably grown anywhere in price from 50 to 100% depending on what it is,” said Clark. “Huge shortages are affecting everyone. They can’t get the product to the market fast enough. It could be anything like cups, arts and crafts supplies, event tents, a full-on food truck mobile unit, or what have you.”
Because plastic cups are hard to come by, Clark had to purchase styrofoam cups this year. Yoder is experiencing difficulties acquiring cups.
“Our suppliers can’t get us stuff like cups, meats, and fry buckets,” said Yoder.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re at the fair, the local convenience store, or a gas station, everything has gone up really, really high,” said Clark. “It’s just a ripple effect, and it affects everyone.”
Faithful crews for a price
The new midway provider Jolly Shows travels with their own employees.
“Labor has definitely been hard to come by,” said Jolly Shows Manager Dominic Joseph. “People who are willing to work want higher wages than what we advertised.”
Jolly Shows placed help wanted ads, but they barely received any responses. Joseph said, “You would think in 2021, you could get people to work.”
“Normally, we have more people that want to have a booth in the Exhibition Building,” said CCFA Indoor Vendor Sales Manager Tammy Ridout. “Due to the lack of people interested in working at this time, many companies are not networking at the fair because they don’t have labor to service calls from the new business generated.”
Ridout encountered larger corporations who had experienced layoffs and did not have the manpower to man a booth. Due to the pandemic, other businesses including state agencies are not allowing teams in the field.
According to Ridout, some previous vendors went out of business during the pandemic, and she couldn’t scout for new ones due to craft shows being nonexistent.
Big Bow Wow Booftique
“The pandemic has destroyed me in many ways,” said Big Bow Wow Booftique owner Donna Riley of Chester. “Aside from no craft shows, I couldn’t find fabric. And, the price of lumber for the elevated dog bowls is astronomical.”
Riley made and gave away 3000 masks to at-risk people who needed them. In doing so, she depleted her fabric inventory and couldn’t find any material for months.
Once Riley located some material, the price had doubled since COVID hit. She sewed dog bandanas and bow ties for 12 to 18 hours a day for two weeks to prepare for the fair. Due to a lack of funds and inventory, this year she only rented one space instead of two.
Regardless of everything going on…
White says her fair family is gung-ho this year, even in the tremendous heat, and they’re working like dogs with smiles on their faces.
The Chesterfield County Fair is located at 10300 Courthouse Road in Chesterfield. The 2021 fair ran from Friday, Aug. 27 through Saturday, Sept. 4. It operated from 5 – 11 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. on Saturdays and on Sunday.
Visit chesterfieldcountyfair.org for more information on becoming a CCFA volunteer. The website provides an updated list of entertainment, exhibits, attractions. and as well as information on ride tickets, special deals, and admission.
If you are interested in working part-time for vendors in a fun environment, contact White at [email protected]
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– Kristi K. Higgins aka The Social Butterfly columnist is the trending topics and food Q&A reporter at The Progress-Index. Have a news tip on local trends or businesses? Contact Kristi (she, her) at [email protected], follow @KHiggins_PI on Twitter, and subscribe to us at progress-index.com.