Customers line up in Sonoma County for a fair food frenzy

COVID-19 has forced cancellation of summer fairs and festivals, but much-missed fair food is re-emerging. 

At empty fairgrounds, vendors are roasting turkey legs, spinning cotton candy and popping kettle corn. 

"We started thinking immediately about fair food because the food is a huge draw for us at the fair," said Kaitlyn Findley-Thorn, Chief Operations Officer at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Beginning Friday, and running through the weekend, the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa is set-up for what it's calling Fair Food Frenzy. 

Cars were lined up before the gates opened at 11 am, and some 600 people came through in the first six hours, loading up on favorites found only at county fairs. 

"We've all been cooped up for so long. we all miss it. everybody wants to go have a corn dog or a funnel cake," said concession owner  

Phil Delahoyde, who sells the ever-popular corn dogs and funnel cakes.  

In normal times, the Sonoma County Fair would be opening now, and the Delahoyde family would be setting in for a 2 week run, as it has for 31 years. 

The fair circuit runs into October, with travel from Bakersfield to Oregon, but this year it all evaporated. 

"Fairs started cancelling in mid-May, and I realized we were done for the year," said Delahoyde, "so I sat there awhile, thinking about what the heck to do."

With a fair-manager friend in Tulare County, he hatched the first drive-through. 

Other vendors were initially skeptical it would work. 

"Everybody was really, really leery because nobody can afford to lose any money right now," said Delahoyde. 

Since then, he has organized fair-food events in Chico, Ukiah, Petaluma and San Rafael.

And although vendors are pulling in a fraction of their normal income, it's better than none at all. 

"Plus everybody is so happy, so nice, so appreciative,' said Delahoyde, "and it's just a happy time."

Friday evening, cars snaked through the fairground property.

Customers order and pay at one station, pick-up at another, and exit at a separate gate. 

"We come to the fair every year, and we're missing it, so we thought we'd come out and get some food," said Kelly Parsons of Santa Rosa, driving away with a small feast. 

There are a half dozen vendors instead of the usual 30, but the logistics were not without challenges. 

"We're used to putting on a massive fair for more than 200,000 people but for this we had to think a little differently," said Findley-Thorn.

"Probably our biggest challenge was getting this approved, getting it past the county health officer." 

Because customers must remain in their cars, and workers must maintain social distance, the effort is more labor-intensive than a conventional fair. 

"We're pushing through it, but it takes about twice as many people run this operation, with all the servers and being Covid-compliant," said Delahoyde. 

Like many diners, the Randall family of Santa Rosa began munching before they were out of the parking lot. 

"We've got a turkey leg, a couple of corn dogs, a candy apple and a caramel apple," they said, as son Andrew, 6, got the first bite of the turkey leg. 

"It tastes like turkey mixed with pizza," he exclaimed, giving a thumbs-up.

"This is finally some normalcy for a change," said mom Rachel, tearing into a corn dog. 

This would have been the 84th year of the Sonoma County Fair, and prior to the pandemic, it had only been cancelled during World War II. 

Those soaking in the flavors and aromas of fair food hope by next summer, carnival rides will be roaring again. 

"That corndog or kettle corn bring back nostalgia for people who've been coming to the fair for years, so we're happy we can offer a taste of that even though we can't have our full fair," said Findley-Thorn. 

Menu items also include corn on the cob, pulled-pork sandwich, churro, and lemonade.  

The Fair Food Frenzy runs for 2 weeks: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug 7-9 and Aug. 14-16. 

Hours are from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and admission is free through Gate 2 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Bennett Valley Road. 

The Sierra foothills and Monterey County are likely locations for the next pop-ups.