1 of 3

Buy Photo

Casey Christie / The Californian

Ed Hollis holds the ladder for Rick Cunningham as they prepare the National Order of Trench Rats Dugout 159 food stand, which opens a day before the Kern County Fair starts. They were cleaning the evaporative coolers, the only line of defense against the blazing heat of the kitchen during peak cooking times.

2 of 3

Buy Photo

Casey Christie / The Californian

Rick Cunningham prepares several evaporative coolers on the roof of the National Order of Trench Rats Dugout 159 food stand at the Kern County Fairgrounds for the fair next week.

3 of 3

Buy Photo

Casey Christie / The Californian

Alfonso Gonzalez was anything but lazy a week before opening day as he readied The Lazy Toucan booth for its No. 1 mission: to fill bellies with funnel cakes.

Everyone develops their fair strategy -- foods to try, attractions to ride, exhibits to see -- in the weeks leading up to opening day. But that planning is no match for what goes into running a local food concession.

In the months before the 12-day event, these nonprofits coordinate, clean and cook to make their stands a success.

For some, the planning never stops, said Carolyn Zullo, who has been running the Southern Sierra Council Boy Scouts baked potato booth for seven years.

"Obviously, we think about it all year long. As far as planning, we start in July or August finding volunteers. It's mostly volunteer-run because we only have a few staff members."

Staffing the booth, known for its "works" potato and yams, requires 13 volunteers per three-hour shift. That includes potato washers, who scrub and wrap the spuds in foil; potato smashers, who load them in the trays and slice them down the middle; potato makers -- "where the magic happens!" -- who dress the potatoes with appropriate toppings; order takers; beverage dispensers; and gophers, the critical team members who pitch in where needed.

While Zullo said she gets up to 70 volunteers during the fair's run, other booths are forced to contend with smaller crews. A case in point is Fred Powers, who runs the booth for the National Order of Trench Rats Dugout 159, which opens one day before the fair.

"I probably use a total of 30 volunteers over the 13 days," Powers said. "The first day or two will hardly be any business. There are two up front to take orders, one on cash register, two in the bar. In the kitchen, a minimum of three. If we're busy, we have four."

Having run the stand for 18 years, Powers said business varies annually.

"Friday and Saturday normally are the busiest. The best entertainment days, we get a lot of people. But you can plan the day of the best entertainment and then no one is there. ... It's hard to predict. There is no formula. It's just based on experience."

Having enjoyed a record year in 2012 -- when 10,865 potatoes were sold -- the potato booth does well on opening day as well as Fridays and Saturdays, Zullo said.

"On Saturday, we sell about 1,600 potatoes; yams, about 50."

Why keep the iron-rich roots when they're dwarfed by their more popular cousins?

"They're (yams) not a big seller, but people, they want them. We'll never get rid of them. We've considered different things, but we find that what we have is what they really want. We find people don't ask for broccoli or anything healthy."

Powers also said his menu of hamburgers, chili cheeseburgers, corn dogs, hot dogs and fries has remained the same for years based on feedback.

"We have the best hamburger and best cheeseburger on the fairground. People come back each year for that. We have a regular following because we have super good french fries. (Also) we're a nonprofit organization. We've always had a reputation for 'the rat stand' as they called it. ... About 75 percent of customers are return customers."

Long associated with the Kern County Fair, the organization was originally founded by the "trench rats" who fought in World War I and has earned a reputation for its work aiding disabled veterans.

The local dugout built its own booth when the fair moved to South P Street in the early '50s.

"We were the first group that was in the location, that was allowed to pick our space there. The main gate was supposed to be the gate 40 on Ming Avenue. We would be one of the first food and beer booths people would go to. They moved it (the main gate) now to South P Street."

But people have managed to find their way to the booth, once topped with a giant rat, for decades. Because of the building's age, the Trench Rats are vigilant about maintaining the stand, which is open twice a year (for the fair and the National Street Rod Association's annual Western Street Rod Nationals in April).

"I spend a fortune on the stand just so we're able to stay open. We have a new roof in it, had to redo our walk-in box, take off the front of the stand and put a new one up. It takes a lot of work year-round to keep up the stand."

Concession volunteers come to the fairgrounds the week before opening day to assess the facilities, power-wash surfaces and do any other touch-ups. Zullo said her crew does the same overall cleaning.

Along with cleanup, ordering figures prominently in the planning process.

Zullo said her initial order comes in the Tuesday before the fair, with additional deliveries through the fair's run.

"Unfortunately, yes, we've been caught under-ordered. Ordering at the end of the fair is tricky because you don't want to over-order and have to do returns. And they don't deliver on Sunday, so you're playing a guessing game. The last Sunday we've had some Vons and Costco runs."

Although everyone wants bustling business, Powers said conditions can get hectic on busy shifts.

"When we have a busy Friday night, five to six are taking orders. The kitchen will have four in there. As hot as it gets out here, in the kitchen it gets unbearable. They have to rotate because they just get drenched."

Of course running the beer station helps the veterans keep their cool.

"We have the coldest beer on the fairgrounds because of the refrigeration of the walk-in that we assembled. We keep the refrigeration about 32 to 33 degrees. Any lower and it starts making things crispy."

Zullo said it pays to be accommodating, even when things get a little bizarre as the fair wears on.

"We get some crazy potato orders. People order yams with every single topping, including salsa. Things like that make us laugh."

Apparently going heavy on the toppings isn't an unusual order toward the end of the day.

"Every once in awhile, it's usually late at night, and they say, 'Let's just go for it.' We have people who come in with boxes and hit the food booths and head home with their treasures."

Last year, the potato booth netted about $40,000, which council CEO Danny Tucker said helps fund summer camps and push-mobile derbies and flag-retirement ceremonies among other community outreach programs.

Along with the success, Zullo said she enjoys the feedback from customers.

"People come by and say, 'We waited all year for your potato.' ... They say they love the potatoes and love the Boy Scouts. That makes me feel good."

Powers said the Trench Rats booth nets upwards of $25,000, which all goes toward assisting disabled veterans.

"It benefits providing transportation for the veterans (to Los Angeles hospitals). Through the VA outpatient clinic, we identify people that are in dire need. People who need food, we take them shopping."

Along with the veterans the group helps, Powers also commends the guys who staff the booth each year.

"Half of the vets we have running the stand are in worse shape than the ones we help. ... We've had so many dedicated veterans that support the stand and they've worked their heart out, people that get out there at 5 or 6 and stay until 11 cleaning up. They give all they can give. I've been very blessed by that. We're there to support the vets and that's what it's all about."