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Organizers of canceled OC Fair give devotees a taste of the good stuff in Fair Food Drive-Thru

Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center
Mayra Rangel, right, with Hot Dog on a Stick, prepares lemonade for customers during the Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)
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Close your eyes and inhale — smell the waft of mesquite-grilled turkey legs in the air just before it is chased off by the beguiling aroma of funnel cakes — and you will swear you are at the Orange County Fair.

And, in a way, you almost are, since you’re standing in the parking lot of the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, where the beloved annual festival usually draws more than 1 million visitors but in recent pandemic months has hosted practically none.

That is where, starting this weekend — and every Friday through Sunday until Sept. 27 — visitors can enjoy some of their favorite fair fare from the safety of their vehicles, as the site hosts its first ever Fair Food Drive-Thru featuring actual vendors from the OC Fair.

When the coronavirus closures began, officials had been holding out hope that somehow the show would be able to go on. On April 27, however, they conceded defeat.

 Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center
Turkey legs cook on a grill during the Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

But not content to let a full year go by without the beloved countywide tradition, officials have been working for months to bring a tangible piece of the summertime festival to life for area residents and fair devotees, according to OC Fair chief executive Michele Richards.

“We started thinking about this just before the fair got canceled, anticipating that if it should be canceled, we wanted to do something to bring a little bit of the fair magic to people,” Richards said.

Working with the Orange County Health Care Agency to determine how to hold a large-scale event while adhering to state guidelines to ensure the health and safety of vendors and participants, they finally succeeded.

“Our team just never gave up,” Richards said. “When the fairs started canceling, vendors were literally out of work. So, this means everything to them — it’s not only to earn revenue but to connect with their customers and have that feeling of the fair.”

Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center
Ahsley Bassett, 21, serves Dippin’ Dots to a customer during the Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

That’s something to which vendor Brett Enright can personally attest. The owner of Juicy’s Funnel Cakes, the Orange County resident has been slinging turkey legs, curly fries and the business’ namesake dessert for 35 years and come to rely on the OC Fair, and others across the nation, as a mainstay.

Last year, Juicy’s served over 300,000 individual customers at the local fair. Losing that business has been challenging.

“But this is great,” Enright surmised, looking around the parking lot vendors serving long lines of enclosed customers. “It’s summer, we’re here and we’re serving funnel cakes at the OC Fair — it’s a beautiful day.”

A safe distance away, Cathy Johnson, owner of Cathy’s Cookies, busily scooped up her signature chocolate chip cookies into buckets and sleeves as customers drove up and placed their orders.

 Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center
Ross Alger the co-owner of Cathy’s Cookies hands a bucket of cookies to Ed Contreras during the Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The drive-through event has been a nice turnaround from the fair, sports stadium and arena closures the Newport Beach resident and her crew have had to endure in the past five months.

“It’s been very hard on us,” Johnson said. “We were going to have a beautiful year — it was going to be our best year yet.”

The cookie proprietress said she was happy to be back in a fair environment, not only for the income but for the customers she’s come to know over the years.

“We really have missed the fairs, the fun and all the people,” Johnson said, replacing an empty cookie sheet with a full one.

Friday’s first day began at noon, but organizers say patrons began queuing up in their vehicles at 11:30 a.m. Among the early birds were Mission Viejo resident Colleen Wilson who heard about the event from her friend and passenger, Pandora Saltrick, an avid fairgoer from Santa Ana.

Wilson, who said she’s been coming to the OC Fair since, “Oh my gosh, how long has it been here — a long time” was sad to hear the news that the big show had been canceled. But her spirits were bolstered Friday by the prospect of a turkey leg and a cheese stick from Hot Dog on a Stick.

Fair Food Drive-Thru at OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa
Jennah Stroh, 11, with the Hawaiian Chicken Bowl food booth attends to a customer during the Fair Food Drive-Thru at the OC Fair & Event Center on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Saltrick had her sights set on picking up some hot dogs and maybe a Hawaiian Chicken Bowl and some lemonade to quench her thirst.

“I might bring some other people back,” she said.

“She might come every day,” Wilson teased.

Fair Food Drive-Thru runs on Fridays and Saturdays, from noon to 8 p.m., and on Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. through Sept. 27. For details, including an updated list of vendors, visit ocfair.com/oc-fair/fair-food-drive-thru.

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