NM State Fair vendors optimistic about event, despite challenges

Damacio Otero at the fair grounds Aug. 25. Otero started selling at the state fair about 35 years ago to help send his daughter to private high school. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The New Mexico State Fair is back, but one signature treat-on-a-stick may not be.

At least not at Damacio Otero’s concession stands.

“I could not find foot-long corn dogs anywhere,” said Otero, owner of Casa de Fruta.

Otero, who has been a vendor at the state fair for about 35 years, said he was told that the manufacturers are short-handed.

“They have enough product but not enough people to make them, keep up with demand,” he explained.

Damacio Otero at Expo New Mexico preparing for the state fair. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Otero can relate. Every summer before the fair, the Albuquerque resident relies on workers to help him turn a “bunch of junk” into a “beautiful” food stand. This year, he’s short-handed.

“I’m so busy right now,” 80-year-old Otero said in the weeks leading up to the fair as he worked on the stand himself. “I can’t get enough help, or (help) that really wants to work, so I’m busy there constructing.”

Otero isn’t alone. Other concessionaires, returning to the fair grounds for the first time since before the pandemic, are facing supply chain disruptions and a nationwide labor shortage. While vendors are generally optimistic about the festivities, which start Sept. 9 at Expo New Mexico, the event may look a little different this year.

Labor, inflation

Earlier this month, Rex Thompson, chief burger-flipper at Rex’s Hamburgers, was also wondering how he’d get his stand assembled. Thompson, whose father started selling at the fair in 1971, said it can be done in just a few days — if he has the help.

“It’s just me, I kid you not,” Thompson said about two weeks before opening day. “I’m hoping to find at least two others. If I can find two (workers), we’ll get it up.”

During the fair, Thompson, also of Albuquerque, runs his 40-foot-by-16-foot stand with 10 people.

Even though he’s tried Facebook and temp agencies, Thompson’s list of workers for this state fair is not as long as he would like.

Back in the “old days,” Thompson kept a notebook filled with names of people that would walk up and want to work.

“Now you don’t get any,” he said. “I mean none.”

Zachary Yellowman, son of owners Roland and Tina Yellowman, serves a customer from Yellowman Fry Bread’s food truck. (Courtesy of Yellowman Fry Bread)

Arizona-based Yellowman Fry Bread, a recent addition to the New Mexico State Fair, serves Native American cuisine at events throughout the Southwest.

Tina Yellowman, who owns the company with her husband, Roland, said she too has felt the labor restraints this year.

“I thought it was just us,” she said. “And then speaking to the other vendors, nobody wants to work. So it’s been really hard and hopefully things turn around.”

Until they do, people just have to do multiple jobs, Yellowman said.

Yellowman said inflation, exacerbated by the labor shortages, is noticeable this year.

“Shopping is probably the hardest issue now because the food has really inflated a lot, and it’s not a lot on the shelves,” she said.

Dan Mourning, general manager of EXPO New Mexico, said some vendors have even had to pull out of the fair altogether because they just don’t have enough product to serve this year.

Those that are staying are finding ways to adapt, he said.

Finding solutions

Some vendors are simplifying their menus as a way to adjust to the new realities.

Thompson said his family’s stand has served just about everything you could at one time or another, although burgers have always been the basis of their business. Now they’re back to a simple menu, focusing on what they do best and making sure they can feed fair goers in a timely manner, he said.

Otero cut seven of the more complicated items from his menu, although he’s still offering his labor-intensive chocolate frozen bananas because they’re so popular.

Phylis Toya, left, and her sister Bernadette Pino from Native Cafe bake oven bread in a horno at the 2014 New Mexico State Fair. (Courtesy of Native Cafe)

Gil Stewart, owner of Albuquerque-based Native Cafe, sees concession stands as glorified banquets. It’s all about staging the right amount of food and having enough staff to handle demand, and Stewart — whose business derives all its income from the state fair and from two other events in New Mexico — said he enjoys the challenge of trying to meet an uncertain and ever-changing demand.

Yellowman Fry Bread, winner of the 2019 Unique Food Contest in 2019, will return to the New Mexico State Fair in 2021. (Courtesy of Yellowman Fry Bread)

Despite the difficulties, concession business owners said they are excited to serve their food. Mourning said he expects attendance to be “phenomenal” since more than 67% of New Mexicans were fully vaccinated as of last week and people are itching to get out. Attendees at the fair will be asked to show proof of vaccination.

More than any other event, the fair brings a steady stream of humanity by his stand, Thompson said.

Yellowman noted that the other concessionaires become like family.

Otero, who said he’s been asked why he continues to man a stand at his age, said it’s simply because he enjoys the fair and the people it brings across his path.

Stewart said he’s looking forward to the adrenaline rush he gets when he sees people 25 deep at his stand, and he and his crew are serving them as fast as they can.

“I love it,” Stewart said. “It’s not like work to me, really. … I enjoy the excitement.”

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