The sweet taste of State Fair success

Chugiak-Eagle River vendors profit in Palmer


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Anchorage’s Dan Eckman wipes a bit of cream puff from his daughter Amelia’s face near the Denali Cream Puff booth at the Alaska State Fair. The popular booth is operated by Eagle River’s Alice and Jack Smith, Alaska State Fair vendors who have been selling Alice’s homemade pastries for 15 years at the fair.

STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

Everyone knows having good plan is essential to a successful visit to the Alaska State Fair.

“You should always eat your dessert first,” said Anchorage’s Karen Eckman, a Chugiak native who started last Sunday, Aug. 28, sharing a Denali Cream Puff with her husband, Eric, and their 18-month-old daughter, Amelia.

Kick-starting a day at the fair with one of the oversized cream-filled pastries seems to be a trend this season. Eagle River’s Ashley Bennett, who sold the Eckman’s their treat, said she also starts every morning she works the booth with a cream puff.

“I eat one every day,” Bennett admitted. “You can only do it once a year.”

This is the 15th summer Eagle River’s Alice and Jack Smith have operated Denali Cream Puffs. Located on the “red” trail, the booth has become something of a fair tradition.

“This is the first stop we make every year,” Karen Eckman said.

After wiping the last bit of filling from their daughter’s cheek, Mr. and Mrs. Eckman headed off in the direction of the midway. With a belly full of sugar, Amelia looked more than ready.

“She’s got lots of energy now, so we’re good to go,” Karen Eckman said.

 

High energy work

Energy is the name of the game for Alice Smith, whose crew of mostly female workers spends their days dishing out cream puffs while dancing, laughing and singing in the tiny booth. Smith said working at the state fair has that effect on people.

“It changes the pace of life,” Alice Smith said.

The Smiths take time off their regular jobs for two weeks during the fair, sleeping behind the cream puff booth in a motorhome.

“This is our home for two weeks,” Alice Smith said.

In order to tolerate the cramped conditions, long hours and hectic pace of working in a busy pastry booth, Smith said it’s a must that her employees stay happy.

“I think it is very important to keep the energy up,” Smith said. “You have to make it fun for the customers. It’s a special time.”

 

Breaking into the business

While the Smiths are established fair vendors, a couple other Chugiak-Eagle River entrepreneurs are just getting their paws in the door.

Although she only just earned her business her degree from UAA this spring, 2007 Chugiak graduate Chelsey Homan has been selling her Eagle River-made “Doggy Decadents” dog treats for four years. This year was her second selling the flavored dog biscuits from a booth she rented for the weekend near the farm exhibits.

Homan said working at the fair gives her access to huge crowds of people, many who otherwise might not know her small business existed.

“You gotta go where the crowds are,” Homan said.

After a successful run at the fair last year, Homan said she talked Eagle River’s Julie Clem into renting the booth next door.

Clem, who sells custom-made dog leashes and collars, said the idea turned out to be a good one.

“It’s been great,” Clem said. “Good sales, nice people.”

For both women, the fair is an opportunity to spread the word about their small businesses.

“It’s just another way to promote,” said Homan, who sells 12 flavors of biscuits and sells her treats at pet stores and gift shops across Alaska and online.

Two of Homan’s newest customers, Chugiak’s Eric and Robyn Thompson, said they decided to pick up two flavors — peanut butter and turkey — for their three dogs.

Robyn Thompson said her husband decided gourmet biscuits would be a fair trade for leaving the canines at home while their owners enjoyed the fair.

“He said, ‘We better get something for the dogs,’” she said.

 

Worth the work

A big key to a fair booth’s success, Alice Smith said, is the help. Many of her employees start out as high school or college students and spend several years working in the booth before moving on to careers of their own.

“They’re cute and smart,” Smith said.

And fun, too. Smith said most of her employees are going nonstop from morning until night in order to keep up with the huge crowds — yet continue to smile and laugh the whole time.

“I have the best workers,” Smith said.

 

Rain or shine is Fair time

Weather can have a big impact on a fair vendor’s year. During her first season at the fair, Chelsey Homan said rain and wind whipped her tiny booth all weekend.

“It was supposed to be raining again this year, so I was a little nervous,” she said. “But this time it turned out great.”

Alice Smith said rain can dampen business — but not as much as you’d think.

“I just really believe that Alaskans are so hearty,” she said. “They put their rain coats on and they buck up.”

Vendors agreed that this year’s fair turnout has been strong so far. On Sunday, Aug. 28, people waited in line for up to 20 minutes before getting through the turnstiles.

That’s good news for Smith, who said her family has turned the cream puff booth into a lucrative venture capable of supporting nearly a dozen employees for two weeks a year. But it wasn’t always that way. When she first got started in the business, Alice was just looking for a way to send one of her two sons on a football trip with his Chugiak High teammates.

“They were going to Hawaii and needed a fundraiser,” she said.

Smith spent the next three months perfecting a recipe for funnel cakes, using her husband and three kids as taste-testers. The fundraiser was a success, and a small booth at the Saturday Market followed. Three years later, Smith took an old family recipe for cream puffs and turned it into the Denali Cream Puffs booth.

For two weeks each summer, the family now drops everything and does nothing but pastry. While the work is exhausting, Alice said there’s no place she’d rather be in late summer.

“We just have lots of fun,” she said.

The Alaska State Fair continues at the Palmer Fairgrounds through Sept. 5.

 

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com

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