COLUMBIA, S.C. --- Butch Netterfield can't help but smile when asked how things are going in the carnival food industry.
Forget the notion of a stagnant economy, said Netterfield, a veteran food concessionaire with 50 years of experience selling fresh lemonade, corn dogs, candy apples and turkey legs.
"This is the best year I've ever experienced in the business," he said. "Every fair has been up if the weather's good."
The trend especially held true during last month's South Carolina State Fair here. Netterfield, now semi-retired, supports his son, Ron Netterfield, and his wife Kim, by keeping their stands stocked with produce. The family had 15 trailers set up at the state fair, supported by a large tented picnic area in the heart of the midway. On the fair's last Saturday, an all-girl Motown cover band kept scores of hungry patrons entertained during lunch hour.
"Ronnie and Kim are the bosses now," Netterfield said. I'm close to 70 now and enjoying life to the fullest."
The Netterfield brand is a familiar one to Columbia residents. Fifty years ago, during segregation in the South, Netterfield's family ran concessions at two state fairs in South Carolina, one reserved
for whites, the other created by African-Americans who were not allowed to attend the state's agricultural showcase on the main fairgrounds. Those were the days of the old Gooding's Million Dollar Midways and girlie shows, Netterfield said, laughing at the memory.
Now, fairgoers of all colors congregate at an event Netterfield ranks as one of the top fairs in the country in terms of spending. North American Midway Entertainment operates the carnival now.
The Netterfields, meanwhile, book independently with the fair.
"If the economy is in bad shape, Columbia doesn't know about it," Netterfield said. "There is no shortage of money here."
Netterfield praised North American Midways' co-owners Jeff Blomsness and Danny Huston for producing a first-class operation in South Carolina.
"Jeff and Danny and what they have done is the one of the best things that has happened in the carnival industry," he said.
A few years ago, NAME offered to buy the Netterfield operation for several million dollars, with the family continuing to run the business, according to Butch Netterfield. He left the decision in the hands of his son and daughter-in-law. They respectfully declined the offer, opting to remain in control and continue booking independently with some of the biggest and best state and county fairs in the country.
"It's not about the money with us," Butch said. "I'm proud of Ronnie's decision."
Outside of the decision to keep ownership in the family, the Netterfields keep pace with food costs by making the requisite price increases to maintain profit margins. The cost of materials doesn't affect their business.
"Candy apples were 10 cents in 1960," he said. "Now they're $3. We do sell the kids meals where families can save a dollar."
Turkey legs and chicken wings were big sellers in Columbia. "We've had five minute waits for wings," Netterfield said.
The per capita spending
at the food court here is twice as much as it is at Netterfield's stands set up elsewhere on the midway. A place to sit is one factor; the other is the food graphics on the back of the concession trailers facing the picnic area. It's a trade secret that works. Those images serve as a reminder for kids still hungry for seconds. "Mom and Dad can't say no," Netterfield said.
The Netterfields also play the Minnesota State Fair, another event known for its strong food operation. The family opens at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for the gates opening at 6.
"They don't want pancakes and eggs but corn dogs and Italian sausage," Netterfield said.