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As Fairs Cancel Due To COVID-19, Food Vendors Bring Fried Favorites On Tour

For the first time in more than 160 years, the Big Butler Fair has been canceled. Like county fairs across the country, fairs in Western Pennsylvania have been called off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But a handful of food vendors are still serving sausage sandwiches, fresh lemonade, funnel cakes and fried Oreos this summer.

Three Rivers Concessions has been running their food trailers alongside Boyers Ice Cream and John the Greek Food Concessions at the Atrium in Butler, Pa. since June 17. The chairs, tables, and signs can be seen from Route 422 about one mile from the Big Butler Fairgrounds.

Credit Kiley Koscinski / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Hand sanitizer stations and signs promoting social distancing are some of the pandemic-related precautions in place at the food stop.

Shelby Seivers, who runs Three Rivers Concessions with her husband Josh, said the response has been overwhelming, with lines winding around the parking lot on the weekends.

“People waited and they were kind, patient. Some people waited in line for 20 or 30 minutes … we have had truckers stop, professionals stop, cops stop. A whole group from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture stopped yesterday and ate,” she said.

Seivers said it’s an emotional but happy experience after so much uncertainty. “We panicked. Because this is our livelihood. We don’t have [other] jobs that we go back to,” she said.

The work season for families like the Seivers starts in Florida as early as January, before fair season kicks off in the Mid-Atlantic region. But when the pandemic arrived in the U.S., the season was cut short. In May the Seivers set up a trailer in Grove City near their headquarters and saw a high turnout for weeks. Then Three Rivers Concessions teamed up with the other vendors to plan other locations as part of a, “fairless tour.”

Customers will find hallmarks of pandemic safety at the location. Workers wear cloth masks, hand sanitizer stations are set up next to the condiments and social distancing is encouraged while waiting in line. Seivers said most people have had no complaints about the precautions taken to keep everyone safe.

Jason Rice and Chris Worst were at the Atrium Thursday during a lunch break. Both men said they saw the food trailers while passing by and decided to pay a visit. Rice said the gyro was a nice consolation in place of the fair, which he and his family have attended for more than 30 years. 

Credit Kiley Koscinski / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Chris Worst and Jason Rice stopped by for lunch on Thursday.

The vendors will be at the Atrium in Butler serving fair favorites through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Plans are still being finalized for the group’s next tour stop, but Seivers says she'll go wherever the vendors can fit their trailers. 

“All three of us [vendor families] are traveling together and we're just going to hit as many places as we can. We've had a lot of people approach us that have parking lots or businesses that have an area big enough for all of us to set up in. And we can just go and see how it goes,” she said.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.