Even with flavorful choices like fuzzy navel, guava, mango madness, tiger’s blood and root beer float, Berkley Roberts said people tend to stick with the standards when they order Hawaiian shaved ice.
“Cherry is the number one seller, blue raspberry second and strawberry is third,” said Roberts, a shaved ice vendor at the Prince William County Fair.
“It seems like the first flavor they try, they will not try anything else because they like it so much they want to stick with it,” Roberts, 47, said of his Tropical Sno flavors.
“Just like those two boys that just came up,” Roberts said of a pair of 4-H’ers who came from the cow barn at the fair to buy a couple of $4 cups of orange and red flavored ice.
“They get exactly the same thing and you start remembering your customers by what they get. You say, ‘Here comes Fuzzy Navel or here comes Strawberry Daiquiri,’ ” he said.
Roberts is a second-generation, part-time carnival man who tried to do other things, but wound up raising his family on his concession business.
“I grew up doing this. My family owned an amusement park in Salem, Virginia, called Lakeside, so I paid my way through college making cotton candy and candied apples,” Roberts said.
“I got out of college and did various jobs and came right back to doing what I like,” said Roberts, who still lives in Salem with his wife and three sons.
“I do three fairs a year. I’m what they call in the business a “40-miler.” That’s somebody that works around their hometown,” he said.
The fairs are how Roberts spends his summer vacation. On this most recent trip, he brought Brett, his youngest son, along to help. Brett, now 13, is learning the family business. He started helping his father when he was 7 years old.
“This is our third fair of the year. We started off in our home town of Salem,” he said.
“Once we get through here, we go to Virginia Tech and I set up nine concession stands at Virginia Tech and we do giant turkey legs, funnel cakes and all cotton candy, candied apples,” Roberts said.
“We do football season then we roll right into the basketball season,” he said.
“I’ve got three sons and they all help me with the business,” he said.
Brett said he didn’t mind spending summers at the fairs.
“It’s all right with me. I get paid and everything,” Brett said.
When they’re on the road, Roberts said, his self-contained trailer and pick-up truck arouse people’s curiosity.
“A lot of people are very interested in where you’re from and then they want to know where you’re going next and the rest of the geography and how you got started,” he said.
“We bring everything that we need except for the ice,” he said.
“Most fairs have someone, in carnival lingo called the “Ex” or the exclusive, for ice and they back up the ice trucks and bring me the ice in 300-pound blocks,” Roberts said.
“I’m having to chip it to get it down to about a five pound piece to put in here,” he said of the machine that shaves the ice to simulate snow.
“This concept of shaved ice actually developed in Hawaii,” Roberts said.
“In Hawaii, those high mountains there actually have snow on them twelve months out of the year. The Hawaiians would go up and get the snow and this is how the concept started,” he said.
“Shaved ice is a lot older than ice cream,” he said.
Roberts said that life on the road is good. Sometimes he and Brett stay in hotel rooms and other times they stay with other friends they’ve made over the years.
“At this fair, a friend of mine has a bunkhouse and he lets us stay there. When we’re in Harrington, we stay in a hotel. When we’re in Salem, we stay at our house,” he said.
In some ways, Roberts said, the relationships people establish on the road are different from those they build when they stay in one place, but in other ways they are much the same.
“Something unique about going out on the fair circuit is you’ll have a whole set of friends that you’ll only see two weeks out of the year at that particular fair and you’ll become friends over the years,” he said.
“It’s like having a reunion every year and then you don’t see those people again until next year,” Roberts said.
“It’s very unique to be able to develop friendships like that,” Roberts said.
The friendships are crucial to economic survival on the circuit.
“It’s awful hard when you travel. You can’t carry a shop. You can’t carry a warehouse with you. You’re always going to run out or need something. We borrow from each other and if we can’t return what we borrow we just pay each other for it,” he said.
“It’s always easy to find somebody who will help somebody else,” Roberts said.
On the other hand, those who work the county fairs spend their evenings and off time in much the same way they would at home.
Brett has a Spanish tutor who prepares assignments for him while he’s on the road. When their work is done, they often visit with the other vendors.
“We sit and watch TV and, believe it or not, we like board games,” Roberts said.
Scattergories and the Andy Griffith Trivia Game are popular at the fair this year, Roberts said.
Kathy Carpenter’s children discovered Roberts’ booth three years ago during his first year at the Prince William County Fair.
Now Carpenter, 37, said the children spend at least $30 a day on his cold treats.
“This place is incredible. We spend a lot of money here every year,” said Carpenter of Glen Oak Dairy in Madison County.
“Those things are delicious. They’re very refreshing especially when it’s hot.”
The fair will run until Aug. 16 at the Prince William County Fairgrounds.