The 12th anniversary party for California Carnival Company on July 1st proved to be a trifecta. Reaching the dozen year mark was just one reason to party. The other two reasons were the final payment to Midway of Fun was made, and the launch of a new company, American Doniker, a portable sanitation company.
To say that the 2018 fair season has been one of milestones for Kevin Tate, President of California Carnival Company is an understatement. Reports of many fairs being mired in wet, rainy weekends and attendance doldrums may be widespread in many parts of the country, but this Northern California-based carnival company has seen business up 25 percent so far this year. This uptick was due to a combination of factors – the company added festivals and other dates to their early itinerary – the company’s route now begins in February – and the weather was mainly cooperative. “I think we lost one day to rain,” said Tate. “We had good weekends; the fairs are doing a little better. We booked more spots, more parking lots. Our fair season starts in May and ends Labor Day.”
Spending is up and the economy may be on an upswing in California, but Tate also credits his workforce in creating a fun, 21st century midway. “We are handling the crowd better, we are doing our job as showmen better,” he said.
The company added key equipment upgrades to its 2018 inventory, including a new $100,000 entrance sign, a Funnel Cake stand, and a refurbished Sizzler and Dumbo. Last year the company added a new Wave Swinger. The company has strengthened its marketing efforts with its events and has cultivated a growing following in the region, evidenced by the California Carnival Company’s Facebook page exceeding 13,000 followers.
But Tate would not have even considered more dates and an enhanced midway without attaining H-2B workers. Last year, it was not until August that he was able to get his 15 workers, but this year that number came in at 25 and the workers were onsite at the earliest 2018 California Carnival Company gigs. “If I didn’t get those 25 kids I would have been trouble,” he admits.
Even though he may have dodged a bullet this year, there’s no guarantee the levels of caps will remain for next year. With no legislative fix on the horizon, the ongoing issues with the H-2B worker system worry Tate the most. The caps in place may soon be put to a test, said Tate, citing that crackdowns on illegal immigration may cut into the labor for other industries, who in turn will tap into the H2-B pool of employees. If caps remain unchanged while the competition for visiting foreign workers escalates, the fair industry and carnival companies could face a sudden and steep labor shortage in 2019. “The fair industry is in trouble, he said, “The reason is the instability of the H-2B worker system.”
Tate is convinced that legislators will listen to the fair industry and other proponents and expand the caps or otherwise ensure the system enables the recruitment of stable foreign workers for key industries. With the economy on the upswing, his company alleviating a debt and his once upstart carnival company having a robust year, the ever-entrepreneurial Tate decided to embark on a new business venture –American Donicker. Donicker is a slang term for toilets in the carnival business; this portable sanitation company was born out of Tate basically being fed up with the service and the restroom options that he had been contracting with for his midways. “They all have terrible beat up equipment,” he said.
American Doniker features VIP trailers complete with hot and cold running water and electricity as well as single toilets that instead of dark, plastic version of a phone booth, Tate wraps the interior with colorful landscape graphics as well as amenities, making the call of nature as pleasant for the end user as possible. “I added showmanship to the portable donicker business,” he said. “We made the toilets fun, we made them a marquee product.”
Many economists claim that with the right product, supply can create its own demand. American Donicker services a similar geographical area as the Carnival Company – Northern California, mainly the San Francisco and Sacramento market areas – and “we have had five major events so far, we are also very heavy with industry.”
Tate’s first job in the fair industry was in 1978 with Butler Amusements. By the 21st century, he was unit manager of a Midway of Fun, which he purchased 12 years ago from Sam Johnson, owner of the original company. The company’s celebratory soiree included over-sized checks and other fanfare and was attended by Sam and Gail Johnston as well as various attorneys, bankers and accountants who help make the arrangement equitable and amicable.
In other words, the celebration had the showmanship ethos that California Carnival Company has become known for. Looking back, that showmanship includes friendly staff and clean and professional midways. An early mistake was trying to grow too fast, which meant a paring down of dates until about three years ago, when the company began contracting with more fairs and festivals, a strategy that has reached fruition in the successes of 2018. Controlled growth and reasonable expectations has been the foundation of the company, which Tate operates differently than other companies. “I book more dates, but there are dates you have to say no to, you have to do the research. Our company runs off of a profit and loss statement, not off cash flow. Some companies will play a spot where they lose money but keep up the cash flow. I play a spot to make money, if there’s too much of a risk of a loss and not enough profit, than I don’t book that date.”
Left to right: Mike and Linda Davisson (M&L Concessions), David Garrett (Haas & Wilkerson Insurance), Sam Johnston (former owner of California Carnival Company), Bob Sare (General Manager of California Carnival Co), David Kee (CCC CPA), Jane Tate (California Carnival Co. owner), Vanessa Payne (concession manager), Kevin Tate (California Carnival Co. owner), and Matt Payne (Concession Manager).
Sam & Gail Johnston (left), Jane and Kevin Tate (right)