RIVERVIEW — Matthew Lauther wasn’t made to sit still.
Born into the carnival life, Lauther grew up spreading cotton candy, corn dogs and crispy, deep-fried everything from one side of the country to the other. The business has sustained his family for four generations.
He learned how to repair his father’s Kiddie Land rides by the time he was 12. By 25, he had learned the art of plotting out the festival season to make ends meet, starting close to home in Plant City with the Strawberry Festival and following the sun up the eastern seaboard through spring, summer and fall.
This year, Lauther said, would have been the perfect season — 25 choice festivals, carnivals and fairs, the “cream of the crop” for his concession-stand venture. But by the time he and his crew reached stop No. 4, the three-week Charlotte Spring Fair in North Carolina, the coronavirus caught up to them.
The fair closed just minutes into its opening day, sending Lauther’s team and his six trucks full of fair food — an investment of roughly $10,000 — back home to Riverview.
“It doesn’t take long for me to start getting restless," said Lauther, 32. “I crave that change of scenery, the change of pace, the change of routine.”
For the last four weeks, Lauther and a group of 15 friends, family members and employees have brought the whimsy of carnival life to a mini-midway of concession stands they’ve dubbed, “Taste of the Fair to Go." They set up a drive-thru operation in an abandoned farmer’s market at U.S. 301 and Symmes Road.
Just after dusk on a Sunday evening, cars lined up, drawn by the carnival lights, banners and piped fairground hurdy-gurdy organ music. There is no Ferris wheel or funhouse. But there’s cotton candy and lemonade, and, for the brave, doughnut bacon cheeseburgers.
After passing a health inspection earlier this month and securing a permit as a food truck establishment, Lauther launched a marketing blitz that he’s hoping will bring him “a fresh new start.” The crew is even taking orders on GrubHub and DoorDash.
“I think it’s kind of like a getaway from reality for a lot of people,” said 29-year-old Jake Peck, a fellow traveling worker hired by Lauther hired after coronavirus scuttled the season. “It gives people a little bit of joy, I think, when they see it. It’s hard to be sad when you’re holding cotton candy.”
So what can you buy?
“I’ve got the five main fair food groups,” Lauther says, his inner carnival barker talking. “Pizza, cotton candy, doughnut burgers, funnel cakes and fried Oreos.”
The response has been overwhelming, he said. The team is serving up giant turkey legs and funnel cakes to some 500 customers a day and demand has kept the neon lights on from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
On the Facebook page for Taste of the Fair To Go, reviewers ask Lauther to make his operation a permanent fixture at the derelict corner where he rents space by the month.
“Had fun picking out our order. Felt like we were at the fair and the food we had was really good,” one reviewer wrote.
“Great food, especially the turkey legs and deep-fried Oreos,” wrote another. “The pizza is also a hidden gem. Would recommend to anyone looking for a taste of the fair.”
Customers don’t get out of their cars. But it’s still festive, a “good old full-time distraction."
Knowing his friends will have a steady paycheck for a while brings some peace to Lauther’s restless mind.
“It’s like we can just live in the present again and not worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow or in the future."
Staff writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this story.
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