Lessons learned in food service
Carbon County Fair Concessions does more than provide food, it provides fundraising and learning opportunities for local students
August 3, 2023
The county fair brings to mind a number of images: rodeos, a sense of community and parades. The same goes for the Carbon County Fair.
Food trucks from near and far gather at the fairgrounds and seem to have their dedicated fans. The most popular place to get breakfast, lunch and dinner, though, seems to be the Carbon County Concessions building. It's common, during fair week, to see a line of customers extending from the order window. It's easy to see why when looking at the menu, which offers the typical American staple of hamburgers and hotdogs but other options for those who want more with their food.
Loaded french fries-such as Irish Nachos and Chicken Bacon Ranch-join sandwiches with smoked beef brisket, pulled pork and prime rib. The brisket and pulled pork sandwiches are topped with dill pickles and coleslaw, as well as the option of sweet or Uncle Trav's barbecue sauce.
Uncle Trav, also known as Travis Moore, is one of the masterminds behind the menu as he smokes the brisket, pulled pork and prime rib for the menu. His homemade barbecue sauce is popular as well. According to Steve Sanger, Moore's brother-in-law and another menu mastermind, estimated customers choose Uncle Trav's 2-to-1 over the other barbecue sauce.
While there's menu items which are quite literally loaded with toppings, there's other menu items which are intended for a quick turnaround. The whole point of the concession building, according to Sanger, is to do things as quickly as possible.
"We built the building to do one thing and that's to go really fast. Everything we do is based on going really fast and then we build recipes that fit the speed so that we can crank out really good food really fast," said Sanger. "It's Five Guys at the speed Five Guys does not move at."
Of course, none of this just happened. The current concessions building is relatively new, though built in the footprint of the old building and its patio. The kitchen, which would be the envy of any restaurant, is made-up of equipment from as nearby as Rawlins and as far away as Grand Junction, Colorado. Much of the equipment was bought by the Carbon County Fair Board when the kitchen at the Rawlins High School was demolished, the six-top grill came from Grand Junction, Colorado and the dishwasher came from the Sundance School District.
"From there, you have to have people who work. It took us a while. Everytime we do this, there's something new about what we're doing, about making it easier for us. The first two years were, for lack of a better term, a nightmare," said Sanger. "We didn't know how to do most of the stuff we were doing."
After the first night with the new equipment, the kitchen crew didn't get much sleep. Instead of shutting the doors and going home, they worked into the night to completely rearrange the building to create a better workflow.
"We couldn't work the way we were working. We were running into each other, we couldn't keep up. It was impossible," said Sanger. "The explanation to the fair board was 'You basically own a Ferrari you park in a garage for 11 months and three weeks and for that one week you just go race and then you park it in a garage for 11 months and three weeks again.' It has to be set up to do that and most are not set-up that way."
Even though the building had been rearranged, for lack of a better term, there still needed to be people to help operate during that one week race. Eventually, students from Rawlins High School and Victory High School began to help run the concession building. Rather than volunteering their time, a portion of the revenue generated during the week is paid to the students and can be used to fundraise for specific activities they are involved in at their respective schools.
"We're paying them hourly to be here. They get that money and put it in their account at Victory or at the high school or wherever they're from," said Sanger. "They can split it up and that's our donation to that activity. We're averaging about $11,000 per year, so we're about $97,000 in the time we've been doing this."
According to Sanger, much like how the concessions building is opened only one week a year, students who work in the building may not associate with each other the rest of the year. They may go to different campuses, be in different grades or even different social circles. They may only talk to each other during that one week, which is what makes the efficiency of the concessions building that much more impressive.
"Every person has a very specific job when we're at full speed. When we're at partial speed, they can multitask in a space," said Sanger. "The people who control everything are those standing right in front of the sandwich prep. They control everything: they control what order's getting called, what's getting out, what's being done and what order it's being set in. The person that works the window is the expo, they're the ones telling you you're missing x, y or z."
When the returning students step into the building, they step into their role and ensure the system works. According to Moore, students who have worked in the building from their freshman to senior years of high school will also come back while in college and continue to work concessions. Eventually, however, there does need to be "new blood" so to speak and with that comes the learning curve.
"They're forced into situations where they have to solve problems all the time in the moment. In a cordial manner, in a system that they're learning and understanding," said Moore. "They start to trust in the system and the system works, so the nerves go down a little bit."
"They plug themselves into their system and learn to deal with someone they don't normally see," added Sanger. "They learn to work together, even though that's not a cooperative thing they would normally do. They're super respectful, they talk to each other really well."
The hourly pay applied towards activity accounts is certainly a boon for a cheerleader, swimmer or band member. According to Moore, however, there's a much more beneficial component to high school students working the county concessions building. It teaches the students to develop a systems thinking, a realization that multiple departments work together towards a common goal, they may not learn elsewhere. This wasn't by design, said Sanger, but rather just how the system developed. Yet, the students always seem to step-up to the challenge.
"Some days, we're just amazed how fast they can go and wonder whether they can do that for hours on end and yes they can. Without failing. Their learn time might be half an hour," said Sanger. "We don't even give them a build sheet. We show them once, and then walk away."
When someone orders their food, that variety of experience goes to work in the background from the time the customer leaves the order window and walks to the pick-up window. Each time, picture perfect food comes out that's both a feast for the eyes and the stomach and a testament to the systems in place at the Carbon County Fair Concessions building.