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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 2nd, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 17 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 17

Life's a carnival

Workers share what it's like behind the scenes at the Santa Barbara County Fair


Hot ‘n’ cold
Look for this stand at the Santa Barbara County Fair July 10 through 14 at the Santa Maria Fairpark, 937 S. Thornburg St., if you want to try a jalapeño ice cream sundae. Gates open at 11 a.m. daily.

There’s heat, and then there’s heat. This summer might be blazing, but it doesn’t hold a candle to a jalapeño ice cream sundae with hot fudge or strawberry sauce. That’s one of the featured items on the menu at Judy Henbury’s ice cream stand at the Santa Barbara County Fair, set for July 10 through 14.

Henbury owns a collection of food carts through her business, J&M Concessions. She’s bringing a pink and purple ice cream stand, a white and blue mini doughnut stand, and a red and yellow corndog stand to the Santa Maria Fairpark. The Nipomo resident has been serving sweet treats and good eats at the fair for so long, Fairpark officials named the area where she sets up her stand Henbury Corner. It’s between the barns where 4-H members care for their pigs and other animals during competitions.

“My love is being down at the barns with the kids,” she told the Sun in a recent interview.

It’s down by the barns that Henbury’s career in concessions really took off. Her two daughters raised pigs for 4-H back in the mid-’80s, so she spent at lot of time at the fairgrounds.

“There wasn’t any food there in the beginning because the stands didn’t open until 11 a.m., but the kids had to be there at 6:30 a.m.,” she said.

So she asked Fairpark officials if she could bring in her mini doughnut stand.

“I said, ‘If I pay for the power, can I have it?’” she recalled.

The higher-ups said yes, and thus started J&M Concession’s long tenure at the fair.

“I’d serve doughnuts, hot chocolate, coffee, and tea—food that was easy and inexpensive for the kids,” she said. “On a busy day, I’d go through about 10 dozen [doughnuts] before 11 a.m.”

Henbury worked the stand during the summers with her lawyer husband Mark and her daughters.

“He’d do law during the year and then he’d work the fairs during the summer. He’d always set me up and tear me down, and then we’d work the weekends together,” she said. “He’d bring his laptop and do estate planning, wills, and contracts while he was sitting in the booth.”

The Henburys carried on this tradition for 10 years until Mark’s untimely death in 1995. Today, J&M Concessions continues to be a family affair; one of Judy’s daughters followed her into the fair-food business.

“I’m a purist,” Henbury said of her approach to concessions. “Everything is made there. We even make our own waffle cones. I mix my own [corndog] dough, hand dip it, and cook it.”

While she travels to festivals and fairs all over the state, she said her favorite event is the one in Santa Maria.

“It’s a community- and kids-oriented fair, and it’s ag-oriented, too. There are generations of families who come to the fair and show animals,” she said, adding that the 4-H kids she waited on in the ’80s are now bringing their own children.

Working the fair circuit is a little newer to Cierra Warner, an employee with Helm and Sons Amusements, the company that supplies rides and games to the Santa Barbara County Fair.

Cierra said her life as a “carnie” started when she took a summer job at a haunted house. It became a full-time job when she decided to take some time off from school four years ago. Now she drives trucks transporting games up and down the state. She regularly works two games, called “joints” in carnie speak: a fast-pitch baseball game that clocks pitch speeds and an inflatable T-ball game for kids.

Cierra’s games are “winner every time,” meaning anyone who tries his or her hand at pitching or T-ball gets a plush (a.k.a. prize) of a stuffed animal or an inflatable bat or hammer.

“And, of course, as soon as the kids get their hands on the bats, they start bonking the other kids on the head with them,” she said.

Some other carnie vocabulary words include slough (to break down), wagon (food stand), ride jock (the person who runs a ride), and agent (the person who runs a game). Customers are called marks.

But don’t let that last word fool you—Cierra said she and her fellow carnies definitely aren’t out to swindle fairgoers.

“Our job is making people happy. It’s really rewarding when you see thousands of people smiling and enjoying themselves. It makes you feel like you’ve done good work,” she said.

So what’s the downside to working at a fair?

“It’s hard to eat healthy out there with all the fried food,” she said with a laugh.

Contact Managing Editor Amy Asman at

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