(This was written by Gerry Curry (Gerry’s BBQ) about his experience as a vendor at the multicultural festival’s food fair with tips for next year’s event.)
I was contacted by email and asked if I would like to participate in the fair. I was intrigued, but wondered why they would want me. After all, pulled pork is hardly an “ethic food.” I called Gary Kent and learned that he was attending. I figured that if he was serving Lobster Bruschetta I could certainly serve Pulled Pork!
Unfortunately, after accepting their offer, I never received any other information about the event. I knew where it was being held but that was all. After talking to Gary I knew a little bit about what to expect, but I had absolutely NO idea about logistics.
Because I already hold a Permit to Operate a Food Establishment, I knew I had to apply for a special permit to vend at the fair. I was all set to apply for it, including sending in the fee, when I was again contacted by an organizer, who said that they would apply for everyone, and pay the fee. It was a good thing I was procrastinating, because they only did this at the very last minute.
Because I knew nothing, I stuffed my car with everything required, including all the extra stuff the food safety people demand. When the organizers contacted me about the permit I asked what the operating times were. I also said I’d never been there before and would like any information they could provide. I was told that I could start setting up at 11:00 a.m. It would open at 12 p.m. I arrived at 10:45 a.m. and many people were already there, setting up. It was bedlam… the very definition of a three-man rush on a two-man outhouse! Everyone was running around and no one was directing traffic.
I asked for an organizer but couldn’t find one. The tent had been set up with tables all around the walls of the tent. There was a pump hand-washing station at every table, along with thermometers and two-burner, countertop electric hotplates. Extension power cords were run everywhere, but none of them seemed to work. It was clear that those who had attended before knew the ropes. The rest of us had to fend for ourselves.
When the crew from the MacKnnon-Cann Inn showed up, they brought a long, heavy-duty extension cord. With that we were able to make a direct connection of our own to the power panel. They generously allowed me to plug the extension cord I had brought into theirs, so I was finally OK. After my crew lugged everything down from the car, we were ready to go.
There were two types of vendors at the food fair, professionals and amateur groups. It was very easy to tell the difference. Us “pros” set up quickly, using professional equipment. As an example, I had one steam food warmer. The amateur groups came in with every sort of heating unit imaginable. At the table next to me was an assortment of at least four table-top ovens and six slow-cookers. The amateur groups also were there to promote their culture through food. They were not interested in profit. They were practically giving way mounds of food. Some of the pros were also operating at a loss, using the event as a promotional event. In contrast, I was blatantly trying to make a buck, although even I dropped my price significantly, charging $5 when I usually charge $6.75 for a sandwich. Remember, it takes 32 hours from start to finish to offer a good pulled pork sandwich, including fresh coleslaw and fresh, homemade BBQ sauce.
As a quasi-professional, having attended several courses put on by the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, Food Safety Branch, and operating a booth at the Yarmouth Farmers’ Market every Saturday, I fully understand the potential for disaster when food is served to the public. Food safety, both in preparation and service is vitally important. Being a relative noobie to the “pro food” world, I take food safety very, very seriously. I also understand the seriousness with which the food safety Inspectors take their work. Michelle Prendergast, our Food Safety Inspector, arrived shortly after 11 a.m. and immediately started inspecting. I was one of the last that she visited, and that was at approximately 11:30 a.m. I got her seal of approval. Unfortunately, several vendors did not. The organizers chose to delay opening the food tent until everyone was in compliance. This was their choice.
Finally, at approximately 12:45 p.m., the doors were opened and the mad rush began. It was clear instantly that the public was looking for “exotic” food, and quantity for the price was the order of the day. We did OK, but it was clear what the public was looking for. As well, one vendor was given what I would call special treatment. The first table visitors saw upon entering the tent was Mayor Pam Mood’s small Lebanese table. Unfortunately, just beyond her, in a space eight to ten times larger than anyone else, was the Indian area, consisting of at least four tables, plus tons of operating space behind them. A crew of at least six, from what I understand, all imported from Halifax, prepared and served. They were a well-oiled machine. When I arrived at 10:45 a.m., they were all set up and ready to go. Clearly the 11 a.m. set-up didn’t apply to them. The natural flow of traffic around the tent meant that I was the second last vendor that visitors saw, with plates already heaped and appetites waining. At the end, the vendor beside me was literally giving away food for free. Why would you pay $5 for a pulled pork sandwich when you could get a plate of salmon for nothing?
Points for the Organizers to Think On for Next Year
1. Create an information sheet listing requirements, what you will supply and what you are expected to supply. Include concise information about food safety requirements.
2. Have someone CLEARLY in charge, wearing an identification badge, on hand and available to greet vendors, answer questions and help.
3. Recognize that virtually every vendor will require electricity and plan accordingly. Adequate power should be available at all stations on arrival. Keeping food within the safety zone is the single most difficult task a vendor will have. Not being able to maintain temperatures on arrival was the cause of most of the problems this year.
4. If you advertise that you will be open to the public at 12 p.m. then you must!
5. I strongly urge you to make a separate entrance to the food tent. Some people are simply not interested in the entertainment… the come for the food!
6. Treat all vendors equally. No special treatment, especially for those you parachute in.
7. More room between the tables and the walls of the tent. Not enough room to operate. Personally I would also like a table behind me for storage and the hand-washing station. From a food safety perspective, it’s not good for the public to be able to come in inadvertent contact with the food before it’s served. No one had sneeze shields.
8. Do not blame others if something doesn’t go according to your plan. If the food tent could not be opened on time because of food safety issues, it’s NOT the Food Inspector’s fault! They’re just doing their extremely important job. You should do more to help amateur vendors meet the standard, or just send them home.
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