San Diego County food vendors at a loss without the county fair

 ‘This loss is just irreplaceable and unfortunately we don’t know what to do’

Chicken Charlie's is known for creating new and creative fair foods every summer, like this cotton candy ice cream sandwich. (Photo Courtesy of Chicken Charlie's)

Every June for nearly four decades, Charlie Boghosian has worked the county fair at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. He was a 14-year-old resident of South Park when he got his first job selling charbroiled corn there, a gig he continued each summer until he graduated from college.

It was then that someone offered to sell him their broasted chicken trailer, altering his plans to become an FBI agent. With it Boghosian built up the famous Chicken Charlie’s, a stand that created and popularized the deep-fried Oreo, deep-fried Kool-Aid and a multitude of other wacky fair snacks.

Next month would have been his 37th year participating in the San Diego County Fair. Then came the coronavirus pandemic and, like many events, the fair was postponed until 2021.

“I don’t remember a year in my adult life where I didn’t work the San Diego County fairgrounds, so I’m not sure what to do with myself in June,” Boghosian said. “I might get really confused in my head. I don’t know where I’m going to walk or what I’m going to do.

“I’m being silly, but I’m not. I just can’t imagine life without the San Diego Fair.”

He’s not alone. More than 1.5 million people visit the fair each year, lured by the dizzying carnival rides and intoxicating aromas of deep-fried churros, smoked turkey legs and freshly popped kettle corn.

Owners of popular fair stands like Chicken Charlie’s now worry what the year-long break from fairs throughout the state will mean for their businesses and the many San Diegans they employ.

The fair lists 118 food stands on its website, some of which are clusters owned by the same main business.

Some vendors, like Roxy Restaurant owner Shoja Naimi, had already spent money preparing for this year’s fair by the time it was canceled.

Naimi and his brother co-own Roxy, which has sold an eclectic variety of international fare, including artichoke sandwiches, calamari, gyros and falafel burgers, at the fair for the past 30 years.

While there is a separate, physical restaurant in Encinitas, the fair represents a significant part of their business, helping to even out the annual budget against a slow, winter season. They average $100,000 in food and beverages sales and employ 20 to 30 people at the fair alone.

Along with two other stands selling corn dogs and kettle corn, Roxy has been selling to-go food at the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ Solana Gate entrance from 12 to 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for the past few weeks. His hope is that it will help to make up the difference in revenue, but he doubts the sales will match what they do in normal years.

“The fair had become a very important part of our business and livelihood,” Naimi said. “In a short amount of time, everybody at the fair makes such a good income.

“This loss is just irreplaceable and unfortunately we don’t know what to do. It’s not like a restaurant where we can open later. The time lost is lost.”

Aside from the economic impact, he added that he looks forward to seeing the friendly faces of returning customers year after year as their families grow larger and children age.

“This is even more than the financial hardship,” Naimi said. “We won’t see our friends, we won’t see our regular customers that have been coming to us.”

Another vendor, Bacon A-Fair owner and Valley Center resident Michael Peterson, has been selling food at the fair for 20 years.

After graduating from college, he bought the business from his grandfather, who originally sold bottled water and churros. Following the popularity of the chocolate-covered bacon he released almost a decade ago, the stand has since pivoted to a bacon-themed menu.

Peterson estimates that he sells about 50,000 pounds of bacon working the California fair circuit in menu items such as pupusas, loaded french fries, and bacon-wrapped turkey legs, hot dogs and sausages.

In addition to supporting his family and employees, sales from vending throughout the summer is what largely funds Peterson’s volunteer work in El Salvador through his nonprofit Missionsake.

“The money from the fairs and the business helps support the work we do down there,” he said. “We kind of serve as an umbrella organization for a number of Christian churches and missionaries that work in El Salvador. We also have a couple of economic development programs in some small villages there.”

His hope is that after the danger of the coronavirus has passed, the community will be able to reconnect with one another.

“I would encourage people not to let this dehumanize their lives,” Peterson said. “If people stop hugging and shaking hands and are living in fear, we lose what it means to be human. Once we can safely come together again, let’s not let this change us and take away the life-giving social interaction in our lives.”

Chicken Charlie’s owner Boghosian launches a brand new — often bizarre, but tasty — snack each year at his fair stand. Burgers served between Krispy Kreme donuts, cotton candy ice cream sandwiches and deep-fried avocados, creme brulee and Twinkies are just a few of the unique concoctions he has launched at fairs past.

This year’s planned launch was deep-fried salt water taffy, which he’ll be selling as a special at his Chicken Charlie’s Table restaurant on June 5, which would have been opening day for the fair.

Boghosian and part of his family emigrated to San Diego from Syria when he was 11, and he’s now the father of four children, ages 2 through 8. He learned to cook from his mother and dreams of passing the business to his kids when they’re ready for it, if he can weather the storm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve been living the American dream every day and loving it,” he said. “They told me I was going to pick gold off the street and I’ve been doing that ever since then. This country has opportunities other countries don’t, and that’s the biggest advantage of America.”

This article was first published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on May 25, 2020.

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