DU QUOIN — When Ron Porter was a little boy, he loved seeing all the people pull into town for the Du Quoin State Fair, setting it up and getting it ready for all the crowds to come.
When he was 6, his father got him a job at the fair running the photo finish of the winning horse from where it was produced, across the harness race track to where the announcer would announce the winner.
The notion that he was carrying a powerful picture in his little hands, the transiency of the fair population, all the other components made him just love that event all the more.
Good for him, and good for the local economy, as he was able to convert that love of all things fair into a profitable business, Fare Foods, headquartered in Du Quoin. Porter estimates that 75 to 80 percent of the food served at this week’s Du Quoin State Fair came through or from his business.
“I had the passion to be at the fair, I wanted to go to the fair, so I created Fare Foods so I could go to that fair, to go to many of the fairs, actually,” Porter said. “So that was the passion that started as a young child. I wanted to go out there every day that the fair was going on, so the passion built … I just wanted to go to fairs."
Inherent in that, he said, is his attraction to the fair types.
“I think it was that transient folks that would come to town that became friends that you would only see once a year,” Porter said.
One family was the Sivori family out of Louisville, with whom the Porter family became friends with and are still friends with today.
He actually launched his fair food distribution business in 1993, when the idea began to take hold. He said he was approached by Frank King, who asked him to bring some food to him at the fair in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was hooked — and dreaming of the possibilities, he said.
By 1999, he completely left Porter Foods, the wholesale food company that his father, Raymond Porter, had established and that Ron had purchased from him.
More than 20 years later, he is supplying traditional fair foods to some 4,500 fairs and other events across the country. He employs about 42 employees, including sales staff, customer service, graphic artists and truck drivers, the bulk of whom are based in the Du Quoin area.
His wife, Laura, 27-year-old son, Trampas, and his daughter-in-law, Jessie, also work in the business. He notes, though, that his entire workforce contributes significantly to the success of the business.
The Fare Foods business supplies funnel cake mix, corn dog mix, hot dogs, “just all sorts of products” to the mobile food vendors. One of Fare Foods’ biggest things is its drink cups, particularly a 100-ounce drink cup.
“Right now, we just created what we call a Jumbo Tanker,” Porter said. “It’s a very big cup that could serve a whole family, but people get a kick out of carrying them around at a fair. So the bigger the better.”
Fare Foods works intensely from about mid-January to late October getting food to fairs and other events. From November to December and mid-January, work slows down somewhat, with sales staff attending shows, like one in Las Vegas, he said.
He said one other aspect about the company that makes it successful is its very location in Du Quoin, where he grew up.
“Du Quoin is centrally located in the United States,” Porter said. “We can go north, south, east and west and (this) gives us a great location to be able to hit all the fairs in the Midwest.”
Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said the Porter family is hardworking, and employs local people and continually supports the community — donating to its Christmas lights projects and for an overhaul of the Du Quoin swimming pool.
Alongi said Ron Porter had turned the family business into a "bonanza" for himself.
"Ron saw a niche in the fair business, where he knew that if he would take wholesale food out to the fair and park what they call a 'reefer,' a big tractor trailer full of food, he can sell directly to those people," Alongi sad. "He's taken that idea and he's just taken it all over the United States."
Porter himself thinks Fare Foods is a great addition to the city.
“I think that we’re making a very big impact,” Porter said. “We’re constantly looking for talent to come into our business to come to work for us, so we’re constantly trying to hire locally when we can.”