PALMER — Think the lines are long for cream puffs and turkey legs?
Try the queue for a booth at the Alaska State Fair.
Some 475 vendors ply their wares at the fair, selling everything from Wax Hands to hot tubs, pottery to bowls of Korean Bi Bim Bop.
Every vendor proved to fair officials they brought something original to this massive outdoor shopping mall that sees 300,000 customers over a two-week period.
The fair uses a booth space application to fill holes when previous vendors decide to move on.
This year, the fair fielded 145 applications for everything but food. Officials managed to squeeze about 100 in. Forty people filed requests to sell food.
Zero made the cut.
Nobody bails on a food booth.
"This year there are no new food vendors. That gives you a pretty good idea," said Kelsey Ingram, an Anchorage bartender and waiter who operates The Soda Jerk booth at the fair. "Unless you have something really unique ..."
Big event of the year
Howling Wolf Furs is one of the lucky vendors with a new booth at the fair, and on the much-desired Purple Trail to boot.
Inside the Clam Gulch company's pristine white tent Friday, a $900 pair of mukluks fashioned from glossy black bear fur got lots of attention.
"I tell people they're Sasquatch," said Dan Wagner, whose wife Sue Moore makes the boots and everything else in the tent. "They go, 'Really??'"
Wagner said fur-lined baby booties are a big hit. Kids like the spare tails and marten faces on sale for about $5, Moore said.
Asked what inventory Wagner brought up from home, Moore rattles off a list: slippers, hats, tails, booties, mukluks.
Asked what kind of take the couple hope to leave the fair with? Moore demurred. Nobody likes to talk about money before it's made. But it's pretty clear the fair brings vendors a concentrated shot at an influx of cash.
Charity Folcik sells girly fashion -- hoodies, scarves and hand-knit headgear -- at her Alaska Chicks booth next to the Farm Exhibits barn. A pop soundtrack thumps over the determined crowing of a nearby rooster.
Folcik, who subleases space in a downtown Palmer business, snagged her booth three years ago.
"I like the fair because people come from all over. They come from Anchorage, Kenai. Normally, they wouldn't just come to my store," she said. "This is the biggest show of the year. Definitely wouldn't want to miss the Alaska State Fair."
She'll be the judge
Pamella Meekin, the fair's longtime vendor and exhibits manager, has presided over who's in and who's out for more than 20 years.
The fair uses the same standards for all booth applications, Meekin said: new non-food vendors are selected first with an eye to product originality and then to the order in which the application came. A committee weighs food vendors based on food-service experience and menu originality.
Nonfood vendors pay a $50 deposit and rates starting at $1,200 for an outdoor space.
The fair doesn't have to work for vendor applications. Vendors find the fair. The work's in managing vendors to keep a good booth balance, Meekin said.
Not long ago, sunglasses and wool sweaters started to overpopulate at the fair. These days, seems like there are a lot of hot tubs. Somebody must buy them, right?
"The economy can only support so much so you don't want to overrun, you don't want to have too many," Meekin said. "You kind of want to keep it where it fits with the fair."
The food list is a battleground. Of the 475 vendors at the fair, about 70 sell some kind of food or beverage.
Of course, Meekin said, it's possible that another food booth or two could sneak in if the fair's 300,000 visitors start to creep up. "But only if the food is original enough to add a vibrant addition."
Last year, just two new booths entered the rarified arena of fair food: The Reuben Haus, specializing in the hot corned beef sandwich, and The Soda Jerk, where counter staff in paper hats and bow ties sling liquid confections to a 1950s soundrack. Both had steady lines Friday.
Location, location, location
Fair officials say they try to give new vendors a good spot, but it really depends on which positions come empty.
One vendor noted that a previous location at the far end of the fairgrounds next to the farm barn proved a little problematic. Fair-goers who aren't fond of rabbits or root vegetables don't even know the Yellow Trail exists.
Folcik, who's on that trail, said she's kept her location so loyal customers can find her. But sometimes, the out-of-the-way trail poses problems.
"I still have a lot of people ask me, 'Where are you? I looked all over the fair!'"
Carrie McAllister, a massage therapist with three locations, is new to the fair this year. She isn't too worried about her spot on the Yellow Trail. Who can resist a relaxing massage after a footsore day fighting the crowds?
"People who have been walking for a while might be a little chilled from the weather if it's still raining," she said last week. "They just want to sit down and relax and have somebody work some of their kinks out."
Why do it?
People set up a booth at the fair for different reasons. Some run brick-and-mortar retail outlets but appreciate the hands-on publicity and outreach. For many small businesses, the fair presents a two-week shot at a nice chunk of cash.
Nonprofits and advocacy organizations make use of the crowds to sell a message.
Friends of NRA hands out free gun-safety literature and raffles firearms and sporting good shopping trips. People often come up wanting to argue over gun rights or the Second Amendment, said Marie Murdock, chairwoman of the group's Alaska state committee. She informs them that the nonprofit's mission is fundraising for shooting sports safety education.
"Of course, to get the message out it's a numbers game," said Murdock." The more people that come out the more we reach."
Then there's Hoop 'n Hula Milk 'n Cookies -- a cookie booth with a generous bent.
Dori McDannold, a Palmer-area massage therapist, yoga instructor and wilderness guide, started the booth to give back to the community. Customers choose from a dozen kinds of fresh-baked cookies. They can donate a share of their cookie receipts to eight different charitable causes -- recycling, hunger, families, renewable energy -- and then go hula-hoop off the extra calories.
McDannold said she donates about half her profits.
"We get a lot of repeat customers who say it's because of the cookie donation they come back," McDannold said.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.