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Midway Millennials
Benna Sandlofer: From Horseback to Midway Management


By Timothy Herrick

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Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals.  If you know someone you think should be profiled, please email us with information.

Growing up at fairs, Benna Sandlofer says the two most important life lessons she learned were work hard and respect your elders. Most of her experience was as a performer, equestrian and animal handler with The Great American Frontier Show, but for the past three years she has transferred her skillset to a managerial role; Food Concessions Manager, Second Unit,  Wade Shows.

At 21 years old, she is certainly one of the youngest food managers on any midway this fair season. Her management philosophy can be summed up very simply. "Never ask for any of your workers to do anything you wouldn't do."

Anything means everything when it comes to food concessions, from setting up, monitoring transactions, food preparation (she's SafeServ certified) to "scrubbing the fryers at tear down," before breaking down the stands. She oversees up to 10 stands and 30 employees, the numbers of both can fluctuate depending on the size of the fair. The Wade contingent of food stands now includes two popcorn trailers, a Funnel Cake, a Grab- the Candy Bar (deep fried candy bars and other deep fried concoctions, Ice Cream, Pizza, Chicken-On-A-Stick, Turkey Legs and Lemonade.

Besides being a hands-on manager, working the midway's frontline alongside her staff, she is in charge of ordering stock (food and related supplies). In addition, she has the responsibility of coordinating the stands with the fair - some fairs do not allow some stands to avoid overlap with their other food vendors - as well as being aware of the state and local guidelines, which can change from year to year.

"It is usually little things like sink sizes or other handling, but I check with the health departments before each fair," she said. "It's not just state, but city and county health departments. Sometimes the rules are different from one county to the next in the same state."

She added, "we are in a different state or at least county every couple of weeks, and they all have their own regulations, and they are always changing , every year they can be different. So you have do the research on those regulations for every fair before you arrive so we can be compliant." 

21st century concession management means in-depth, online research on food and health requirements on the state, county and municipal level as well as food supply inventory tracking and ordering. Otherwise, while digital technology may have made advances in terms of midway marketing and ride operations, food concessions technology's biggest impact has been on  transactions.  

"There's more technology and more access to technology," she said. "For Wade Shows, we have the Fun Card system, so we don't have as long lines. We have different payment systems for food, but the traditional fair foods, like Funnel Cakes and Pizza, are always here and have not really been changed by technology."

Technology has also been a distinguishing factor between the older generations of  and the young cadre now swelling the ranks of fair professionals. "We grew up with technology, everybody wants to use technology and that attitude comes across with people in my generation, we are more comfortable with technology. We also want things simpler and we want to use technology to make things simpler."

Not only has Sandlofer grown up with technology, but in recent years its influence on the midway has only accelerated. "There are different kinds of things that revolves around technology now. Most fairs have an App, where you can get a map, directions, discounts, all kinds of things. You can buy tickets and armbands online before the fair, and all the fairs use hashtags.  It's been a big change. "

Now that every fairgoer carries a phone and every phone has a camera, Sandlofer noted this trend has eliminated souvenir fair photographs.  "There used to be photo booths and stands, but those businesses are going," she said. 

Although her earliest memories are of fairs and outdoor events - she has literarily spent every Summer and much of the year on the road -- her current life in fair management is a far cry from her days as performer.  She could ride a horse before she could walk,  and soon after toddler-hood was part of the family show, The Great American Frontier Show, which was founded by her parents, Michael and Sharon and is still in existence, albeit on a smaller scale than its 90s and early 00 hey-day. 

The Great American Frontier Show was "more educational than entertainment," said Sandlofer. At its peak, the show included horses, camels, buffalos, bears, mountain lions and a wolf pack. "We had six semis of animals at our peak," she said proudly. 

Her earliest performances were with a Trick Pony, doing adorable sounding "my little pony" moves like having the pony stand on a pedestal. By eight, she was already on adult horses and trick riding - her repertoire included riding upside and side-saddle, standing on the moving horse - then standing on one leg - as well as Roman Riding - riding two steeds at one time, a foot on each saddle.

The Great American Frontier Show's season ran May through Thanksgiving. Three years ago,  Sandlofer decided she " was ready a change. I always loved the food side of the business, and I always  had friends in the concession stands and would hang out there after our show. I remember I had friends at a pizza stand, and I would hang out with them at the Virginia State Fair when I was 10 or 11."

Her father, Michael Sandlofer passed away in February,  following a long illness. Sharon and Sadie (Benna's sister) carry on the tradition of The Great American Frontier Show, a down-sized version that now is almost entirely equestrian, although it has what is considered the only traveling Wolf Pack exhibit in the North America. 

Feeding fairgoers is certainly a drastic change from entertaining them, but Sandlofer said "I like the fast pace, I like cooking stuff. The work is different than riding horses, that's for sure." 

It's not just food preparation though, this young woman is in management. While she concedes than men outnumber women fair workers - especially at the managerial level -  she doesn't think that sexism is the industry norm. "Behind all those guys are hard working women, their wives and others.  They are all part of the fairs and carnival companies. I don't believe it is sexist and I don't think looking at the percentages of people, it really doesn't come across that often how many women are in the industry. "

Noting that the International Association of Fair Executives is now headed by a woman, Sandlofer added, "I see more managers of state fairs who are women.  I think the industry is more of an equal rights business than a lot of industries."

Women have earned the respect of their male counterparts through hard work, she said. "My father taught me to earn respect this business, you have work hard, and be willing to do whatever it takes to earn a living. If you work hard, you can be who you want to be, I really believe that."

Not surprisingly this work ethic is tied to her earliest midway memories. "My dad loved to participate in the parades some fairs have to open the event. So we would always be getting our animals and putting them in the parade and I remember that it was very exciting. We would be on our horses alongside marching bands. The fair would ask him if he wanted to participate, and he would always say of course, 'what parade doesn't have horses?'" 

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