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They're Ditching It All For a Life That's Fair

When the Dodge County Fair in Beaver Dam, Wisc., opens this month, the lederhosen-and-dirndl-clad Stelzers will be selling German roasted nuts out of their Waymatic trailer, the one that resembles a Bavarian cottage.

The trailer “is a $117,000 investment we hope will pay off,” says Ray Stelzer, a former supervisor in a manufacturing plant. After working out of a tent last season, Stelzer and his new wife, Carrie, a retired teacher, cashed in their 401(k)s to embark on a second career.

County fairs have always been business incubators for the amusement industry. J.D. Floyd, whose Cumberland Valley Shows was headed into the Kentucky State Fair for its 20th year, started out more than a half-century ago with a popcorn wagon at country fairs. According to grandson Jeremy Floyd, who manages the carnival with his brother Jason, that wagon, now restored, is installed at the entrance to their winter quarters in Lebanon, Tenn., an enduring reminder that amusement dynasties grow out of humble beginnings and a strong work ethic.

An informal poll of industry manufacturers and suppliers reveals an influx of career-changers like the Stelzers who yearn to travel and own their own business, working as much or as little as they like. They do their homework on the Internet and at the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions convention. For many, finding something new and different is the hardest part of the job.

According to Larry Hadley, vice president at Key West Key Lime, which markets frozen pies on a stick, 50% of his vendors are “people who want to get into the amusement business and think this is a great way to do it.”

Change is good

The Snyders of Seymour, Ind., sold so many pies that they couldn’t carry enough in their freezer truck. “It was a good problem,” says Larry Snyder, a former tanning salon entrepreneur whose wife is a retired third-grade teacher. They didn’t want to invest in additional equipment that would hamper their true purpose, which is traveling. But when a banker in his 60s admired their setup at an Indianapolis festival, they sold him the freezer truck, then began looking for the next new thing.

That turned out to be the World’s Tallest Pinball Machine, which they purchased for $59,000 after seeing a prototype in action at Freedom Weekend Aloft, a Memorial Day celebration in Anderson, S.C.

“The 28-foot-high game board features sound effects keyed by an electronic eye,” says its designer and manufacturer, Ron Bandy of Sungate Concessions, who has worked the game on the midway at the Delaware State Fair and county fairs in Ohio. He also went to the Independent Showmen’s Foundation convention in Gibsonton, Fla., where “people were fascinated by it, but since it was so new, I think they had this ‘show me’ way of thinking about it.” That didn’t faze Snyder, who says, “It’s unique –there’s only one other one in the world. The game will book itself once people see it.”

Bandy is a career-changer too. He used to run a national phone-book delivery service.

Not surprisingly, the most successful career-changers have been in the business for a decade or more. Rick Pachell of Deluca Food Services turned his grandmother’s recipe for cavatelli (a doughy bite-sized pasta prepared with ricotta cheese) into a fairground favorite at his local county fair in Canfield, Ohio.

By the time Pachell quit his $60,000-a-year job as a purchasing agent for a major hospital in 1999, he was sure he’d made the right choice, having grown his business from sideline to full-time over 12 years. He has seven locations at this year’s fair, which opens Sept. 1.

“New concessionaires can get in the business, but they have to be willing to give it everything they can and extra,” says Pachell, now running for the board of the National Independent Concessionaires Assn. He wryly describes his first trailer as “something you’d see coming out of a cartoon, with a rounded back and stove pipes sticking out of the roof.” But the aroma coming out of it drew a clientele.

Since then, Pachell has invested $700,000 in such high-end equipment as Hitchhiker trailers that look like old Italian buildings and Pasta Perfect machines. “It’s paid off,” says Pachell, who won for best overall display and best food at the Florida State Fair, where he was scouted by Wayne McCrary for this year’s Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Mass., better known as the Big E.

Grip and grins

Also on the independent midway at Canfield are the Wieslers, whose rock-climbing wall has built a following thanks to their coaching expertise. “It’s one of the very few chances in life that you have to make an impact on a child in five minutes or less,” Scott Wiesler explains. “We’ve had people come up to us and say, ‘We want to bring our kids to you because we want them to get to the top.’”

The fact that insurance rates are six times higher than last year and it takes 400 phone calls to book a new spot hasn’t driven them out of business. Wiesler, 37, says they’ll eventually switch to food, which they started out with five years ago after owning a pizza franchise for 12 years. In the meantime, they depend on a network of climbing-wall owners, who trade referrals.

In their home state of Michigan, they book with Skerbeck Brothers Shows, which Wiesler describes as “the nicest bunch of people you ever met.” Asked why more of his fellow career-changers on the independent midway don’t book with carnivals, Wiesler cites restrictions like having to wear a show shirt, which clashes with his independent spirit. “This is my own company. I want to keep my own identity,” he says.

Meanwhile, on Reithoffer Shows, a top carnival that, like the Skerbecks, began more than a century ago with a steam-driven merry-go-round, career-changer Jack Stoorza, 51, is the business manager for the orange unit. Married to Jan Reithoffer upon graduating from college, Stoorza didn’t join the family business until 11 years ago, when changes in the hospital industry, where he was a top executive, drove him to consider a second career.

“A lot of your fair boards are made up of business leaders and civic leaders, so I’m dealing with the same types of people as at the hospital,” says Stoorza, who also enjoys the different lifestyle. “It’s ‘good’ different. When I was out in the summer in grad school, I got to do a little bit of everything, and it was great. How many MBAs get to drive a semitrailer truck?