A day before the Champlain Valley Fair opens its gates to the public, Ronnie LaBelle is already taking out the trash after two days of service at her indoor eatery, Groucheese, on the Expo grounds. The petite, pixie-cut-sporting 60-year-old owns the spot with her husband, Richard. LaBelle is cleaning up after serving carnies and other fair employees until 2 p.m. that day. While she chats with Seven Days, several burly men ask if Groucheese is still doling out sweet potato fries. LaBelle apologizes and says, “I would stay all day, but it’s our wedding anniversary, and we’ve got better things to do.”
Those better things include cramming in some relaxation before beginning a 10-day marathon that starts at 6:30 a.m. — when the LaBelles arrive from their home in Milton to feed midway workers and fairgoers breakfast — and ends after dinner service wraps up at 10 p.m. LaBelle already sounds frazzled as she details the workload: “I’m on my feet for hours prepping. I feel it in my back,” she says. “You get so tired you can’t think.”
Food service at the fair is neatly divided among local vendors, mostly occupying fixed edifices near the agricultural displays, and out-of-state purveyors in trailers strewn along the midway. Signs direct visitors down “Steakhouse Road” and other quaintly named paths. Groucheese is in a prime spot at the front of the grandstand, with its own modest enclosed kitchen and both indoor and outdoor seating. The LaBelles say they spent months trying to come up with an iconic name for their business. Richard claims it’s a play on their grandson’s mispronunciation of “grilled cheese.”
“That’s BS,” declares Ronnie. Her take? “We were sitting down at the breakfast table. I don’t remember what he was doing, but I said, ‘God, you’re being a grouch today,’ and just jumped up and said, ‘That’s it!’ It pissed him off,” Ronnie says, “but our family and friends thought that it was perfect.”
Grouchy or not, Richard, who grew up helping his father run Conrad’s Coffee — a bakery, bar and restaurant in the spot now occupied by Parima in Burlington — seems perfectly at ease in the culinary war zone. He makes sure the small oven of their cramped kitchen almost always contains a bird that will become hot turkey sandwiches. Between August 29 and September 7, he expects to make about 40 meat loaves from scratch.
Richard says his work ethic comes partly from working at Conrad’s, partly from his parents’ quirky lifestyle. His mother raised parakeets and owned LaBelle’s House of Pets, also in Burlington. As a kid, Richard’s at-home chores included taking care of squirrel monkeys, a toucan and, for a few years, a chimpanzee. With a twinkle in his eyes, the mustachioed 62-year-old marvels, “It’s weird to think I actually lived that!”
Before opening Groucheese nearly a decade ago, the LaBelles continued Richard’s work with animals by showing horses behind the grandstand at the fair. “For years we tried to figure out how to get over the fence,” Ronnie says with a smile. Eventually, she left her job as the scheduling coordinator for cardiology at Fletcher Allen, and Richard retired from Blodgett Corporation. Now the couple can run Groucheese at Champlain Valley Expo events year round. They cite Derby Dames shows and September’s National Street Rods Association Northeast Nationals as particularly profitable.
But it’s not profit that keeps the Labelles and other local vendors coming to the fair year after year. Reasons are as varied as the food itself, which ranges from jalapeño poppers and deep-fried cheesecake at the Fajita Hut to calamari at Mermaid Concessions.
Gary Little, who oversees the Vermont Elks Club booth at the entrance to Steakhouse Road, certainly isn’t in it for the money. In fact, he and his staff don’t see a penny for their labors making Michigans, hand-cut fries and honey-fried chicken. Once the booth and equipment are paid for, the rest of the proceeds go to Silver Towers, a camp in Ripton for physically and mentally challenged kids and adults. One session allows “exceptional people” over 60 to ride horses and sing around the campfire.
Plenty of members of the fraternal organization pitch in, so that each slaves over the fryer just four hours a day. The volunteers have so much fun that, Little says, “A lot of people talk all year about doing it.” At 53, the South Burlington resident isn’t retired like the LaBelles, but his employer, Hannaford Supermarket on Dorset Street, where Little is produce manager, allows him two weeks off for his altruistic fair endeavor.
Curt Echo, co-owner of the Sausage Shack at the fairgrounds, is also a Hannaford employee — he manages the Shelburne Road store — and is eager to sing his company’s praises. “I’ve been there going on 30 years. It’s a great company, A-1,” he says. Echo’s parents and aunt and uncle launched the Sausage Shack 22 years ago; Echo and his business partner, Ray Ingalls, bought them out in 1999. A year later, the shack “went down in flames,” the result of a suspected arson. Echo says acquaintances often assumed he was at fault, but he protests, “I have the best proof that’s not true: We didn’t have insurance.”
He and Ingalls built the new, larger building out of pocket, with seating for 75 and a rare amenity — an air conditioner for the steamy kitchen, which serves up Michigans, hand-cut fries and other fair-food staples. “For me, it’s a bit of a release versus what I do normally,” says Echo. “It’s harder physical work. But it’s not managing a hundred-something people.”
If the fair is a staycation for Echo, it’s a full-fledged holiday for Tom Cairns. The Florida resident, who refers to himself as Mr. Sausage Junior, comes up each year to help his “fishing buddy, neighbor and friend” Stan Gumienny, a South Burlington resident and owner of the Mr. Sausage, Mrs. Steak and Vermont Potato Company booths. Cairns parks his trailer on site and works “15 hours a day, then spend[s] the rest right here.” He says he doesn’t get to see much of the fair during his two weeks in Vermont, explaining, “I’m so tired when I’m done, I just have a beer and go to bed.”
Fairgoers may anticipate a little weight gain after their visit to the Expo, with its many fatty indulgences. Not Cairns. “I lose 10 pounds doing this each year,” he says. “I cook a lot, but I don’t eat much. I don’t really like sausage.”
But plenty of others do. The recipe has been in Gumienny’s family since 1945, when his father first sold the Italian-style links from his farm in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Gumienny, 72, half-jokes that inertia keeps him in the fair-food biz. “I’ve been around here so long it’s hard to get out of it,” he says, his downcast eyes shaded by a forest of eyebrows. “You have a lot of equipment and have to put it to use.” Gumienny says he started the first Mr. Sausage in 1980 “to train my kids in discipline.”
This year, he notes, “We’re getting some of the second generation of high schoolers.” What they’re not getting is Mrs. Steak herself — Gumienny’s wife, Jeanette. After suffering “a bad stroke” a couple of years ago, she can no longer keep up with the prime-rib sandwich booth and baked potato bar next door. Trusted friends like Cairns and the Gumiennys’ two adult daughters help him run the businesses. “It’s our annual family get-together,” he says.
At the fair, family is more than just blood, according to Colchester resident Tom Critchlow. The retired Burlington firefighter and current owner of Vermont Tile Setters, 51, says it’s the other vendors who keep him coming back. “You become part of a community,” he says, standing behind Fat Daddy’s. His booth sells lightly battered onion rings, turkey legs, and 2-ounce shanks of meat called “Pork Boners,” which are drenched in a sweet and vinegary, homemade barbecue sauce. “There’s so much assistance from the other vendors,” Critchlow adds. “It’s such a tight-knit community.”
Echo shares the sentiment. His expressive face strains with emotion as he says, “I love it — I don’t know how else to describe it. First and foremost, you gotta love it and want to be here.” Fair-food folk don’t tend to compete, he says, because “everyone has their unique thing and develops their own following.”
While they may not be fighting for a niche, he and Critchlow agree that back-breaking work is mandatory. Critchlow estimates he labors 14 to 16 hours a day, “if we want to at least get close to getting paid.” Though exhaustion seems to color the experience for all the vendors, the love of food and people keeps them coming back. With a mischievous smile, Richard LaBelle sums up: “It started as a dream and turned into a nightmare.”
“That’s not true,” says Ronnie, standing under the model train that circles the ceiling at Groucheese. “He loves it.” She pauses a moment, then says, “OK, it’s sort of true.”