I was hoping to reach Joey Fowler, who had two games in the top 10 at the March 14-April 7 Miami-Dade County Fair, but when Patty Dee, concession manager, gave me his phone number it made me wonder what he was doing in Philadelphia, since the first three digits were 215, which cover that area.
After a no answer and generic voice mail, I decided to try my go to guy, David Starkey, of Arnold Amusements, who always seems to have an answer for everything. Starkey had to hang up his phone, search for the number, and call me back. It was the same one I already had, so I tried again.
When Fowler answered this time, I wondered what he was doing in the land of one of my favorite baseball teams, the Philadelphia Phillies. His silent response was one of what are you talking about. He then said, “I'm in China.” China, what the hell are you doing there? I asked, and he said, “I came over with Abe Hammer of Best Toys, Brooklyn, New York, to pick up stock. We're buying containers of goods to bring back to the U. S. I've been over here four or five times before, but since I buy from Abe, I wanted to learn more about the process, and he's helping me with that. It's a different world.”
Fowler's mom, Lavon, was once married to my wife, Christine's former brother-in-law, John McCarthy, who had Dar-Jon food concessions, and traveled with such carnivals as World of Mirth, Rod Link, Milt Kaufman's Gooding's Million Dollar Midways, the James H. Drew Exposition, and others.
Fowler's late grandparents, Joe and Thelma Spalding, were highly respected concessionaires from Gantt, Alabama, which had a population of 222 in 2010. Joey spent several seasons handling the merchandise on the Ozzy Osborne tours. “They don't have any of those daytime festivals anymore, so I haven't done that in a while,” he said, adding, “that was quite an experience, actually, a good one.”
Fowler's balloon dart game was the fifth highest grosser at Miami-Dade, and his double decker vertical water game came in ninth place. Both were purchased from Denny's Electronics of Nokomis, Florida. Denny Bartosik won the OABA's Pioneer Award in 2017, and while I'm thinking about it, Marilyn Portemont of Johnny's United Shows, Andalusia, Alabama, which is 8.6 miles from Gantt, received a Distinguished Service Award. Marilyn's late husband, Johnny, was inducted into the OABA Hall of Fame in 2003, Andalusia's 2017 population was 8,787, and get this, Gantt's was 215, yes, that's correct. I know Gantt had several bars because every time Bill Lordy, Terry (The Viking) Erickson, and I called McCarthy, he was in one. Fowler, who grew up in Gantt, now resides in Venice, Florida.
So far this season, Fowler has set up his games at the Florida Strawberry Festival, Plant City, Florida State Fair, Tampa, and Miami-Dade. His next spot will be the Empire State Fair at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N. Y., (Long Island), May 3-19. The fair is owned and operated by Al Dorso; Strates Shows has the midway. Fowler books independently, with North American Midway Entertainment, Frank Zaitshik's Wade Shows, and Charles Panacek's Belle City Amusements. Among other highlights on his route are the Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, and Wisconsin State Fair, West Allis.
Realizing that the games business has undergone drastic changes in recent years, Fowler said, “You have to be able to adapt. Change is inevitable. You have to make sure you change with the times. Games, as you well know, have always been at the bottom of the food chain, but the economy is so good now that people have that extra money to spend after admission, food and rides. The season has been very good up to now, and I'm optimistic that it will continue. I think this is going to be a big year.”
For Lou Pacifico and his wife, Vicki, who have been playing Miami-Dade since 1977, “this was our best ever, unbelievable,” according to Lou, who heads up the Meatball Factory. Their daughter, Nicole, and her husband, Ryan Collmer, had the No. 2 food stand with turkey legs, and were fourth, with barbecue. Pacifico was fifth, with corn dogs.
“And if you eliminate the two beer vendors, we were eighth with Burger Bobs, run by my son-in-law, Robert Diaz, and his wife, Rose, and ninth, with a chicken stand run by our son, Aaron Pacifico, and his wife, Kristen. Fair officials said that counting the whole family, we grossed more than $1 million.”
Asked what made the difference from previous years, Pacifico pondered and said, “First of all, the weather was very good. The new president and CEO, Eddie Cora, made sure there were plenty of promotions, including two $3 Wednesdays. The first was not so big, but the second was tremendous. Last year there was a $10 charge for parking, and they eliminated that, and they did away with the so-called Magic Money, which never worked at this fair. Plus, the carnival (North American Midway Entertainment, led by Tony Diaz) looked really good. When a fair will work with us, we will always produce. We opened our season at West Palm Beach (the Rick Vymlatil-managed South Florida Fair), and we were way up, despite rain and bad weather. We had six stands in there,” said Pacifico.
Next was the Cheryl Flood-managed Florida State Fair, Tampa, where The Meatball Factory had two stands booked on the independent midway. “We were up there. It was okay.” Upcoming are the Howard County 4-H Fair, Greentown, Indiana, July 8-13; Elkhart County 4-H Fair and Agricultural Exposition, Goshen, Ind., July 19-27, and the Cynthia Hoye-managed Indiana State Fair, Indianapolis, Aug. 2-18.
Something different is occurring this year in Elkhart, where fair President Joseph Culp has announced that opening day will include $5 First Friday specials. Examples of bargains include a $5 gate admission, a free ride on North American Midway Entertainment's Ferris Wheel from 5pm to 6pm, and food deals. Kevin McGrath's Best Around Concessions is offering a smorgasbord of tasty treats ranging from jumbo corn dogs to funnel cakes, fruit smoothies, and Saratoga chips. Pacifico, no doubt, will be part of the action, after loving the $3 deals at Miami-Dade.
Pacifico said he used to book with Conklin Shows, but his route is now all independent except for one unit with NAME at The Big E (Eastern States Exposition), West Springfield, Massachusetts. One of his latest hot items is a dilly dilly corndog, which is basically a hot dog inside a dill pickle.”We introduced it at Goshen last year, sold it for $8, and the fair helped us to publicize it. We did the same at The Big E, and it was hard to keep up with the sales, unbelievable.”
For supplies, Pacifico deals with Hopkins Food Services of Cairo, Ga. He is also part of Storm Services, along with Tommy Hopkins, Charley Cox, Dennis and Cheryl Reas of Carousel Foods, and others. “I have been doing business with them for 30 years and Tommy is a man of his word. If he tells you a price, that's exactly what it is. We hope to hold our prices the same this season, but with the rising costs of fuel, we may have to reconsider. We have to go up north, no way around that.”
Pacifico sees many signs pointing to a very good season. “Last year was good. The economy is fantastic. People are spending and at Miami-Dade, I never saw so many $50 and $100 bills coming across the counter, so many of them. Credit cards account for about 18 per cent of our business.”
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