A cooling breeze was flowing through the red and white striped tent and it was comfortable this past Saturday, unlike the previous three days of the Dane County Fair. And, the eaters were enjoying their fair food at one of the 18 white picnic tables in the tent adjoining three different Charlie's food stands.
"I love the food and I didn't know they sold these big Italian sausage sandwiches with sautèed onions at a county fair," the young mother said in response to my question. "And, my son thinks the corn dogs are the greatest!"
But Charlie Miller does sell Italian, and Polish, sausages, covered with onions and green peppers in a big bun and corn dogs at fairs across the Midwest, and a whole lot more including Philly cheese steak sandwiches, Polish and meatball sandwiches, hamburgers, pizza and french fries, along with drinks. And would you believe, turkey legs and roasted sweet corn, too.
Altogether the Miller family, of Sun Prairie, had six food stands at the Dane County Fair run by family members and young employees from several continents.
It was 10 years ago at the Walworth County Fair that I first enjoyed a Charlie's Italian sausage sandwich. Prior to that time, I didn't know that such good food existed at a fair, nor did I know Charlie Miller, who I later found out is one of Wisconsin's biggest portable food purveyors. And, I certainly didn't know that Miller and his family dynasty's headquarters are in Sun Prairie, just a few miles from where I live.
You may remember Miller from this column that appeared in March 2002. It seems about time for an update on this interesting family business that centers on feeding hungry fairgoers and those attending other big gatherings.
I caught up with Miller at the steamy - 90 degrees-plus a couple of days - Dane County Fair last week. And as always, he was busy with his half dozen food stands, four sleeping trailers and mobile homes, a couple of refrigerated trucks, two dozen employees and a host of family members including grandchildren.
This is an unusual event for the Miller family in that it is close, only a dozen miles or less from their homes. More often, they are living in one of the half dozen air-conditioned mobile homes that accompany their travels.
Charlie Miller and his wife, Mary, are true veterans of the national fair circuit, both having been raised in "the business" - he is fourth generation, she the fifth.
Charlie Miller was born in Corydon, Ind., near the Ohio River and not far from Louisville, Ky. His dad, also Charlie, ran a similar portable food business and as today, the family traveled together to fairs across the country. "While half the kids in my hometown had never been outside the county, I'd visited fairgrounds all across the country," he says.
After a two-year tour in the Army, Miller married Mary Ashard, a Madison girl who had been raised in the same business. Her dad, W.J. Ashard, ran the food stands at the University of Wisconsin-Madison field house and Camp Randall in the 1950s, and his father ran a popcorn stand at Lake and Langdon on the UW-Madison campus.
"That first summer (after our marriage), I turned 22 years old at the UP (Upper Peninsula) State Fair at Escanaba, Michigan," Charlie Miller says. "This will be our 42nd year at that fair."
In those days the family cooked out of a tent attached to the back of a semitrailer, he remembers. It took six to eight hours to set up.
A couple of years later on a trip to Macon, Ga., the health authorities said we had to have a wooden floor under the cooking area in that tent, and the next year they said, "No more cooking in a tent."
In 1976, the couple moved to Madison and a year or so later formed their own traveling food business called "Charlie's." Miller's parents continued with their Millers Food Concessions.
"We had Millers running food concessions all across the Midwest," Miller says. "At one time half the food served at the Indiana State Fair was coming from stands operated by my family."
Today Charlie's includes Charlie and Mary Miller, son Doug and his wife, Monica, daughter Lori and her husband, Chris Rockwell, and daughter Aimie, who is still somewhat, but lesser, involved and her husband, Miga.
At the Dane County Fair, Charlie Miller, as usual, was overseeing the entire operation: Doug was making corn dogs in one of the two bigger stands and Monica and their daughter Hailey were running the meatball sandwich stand, Rockwell was circulating between two stands and his wife, Lori, was at the Fond du Lac County Fair with three other food stands.
Scattered among the various food stands were young employees, some from Sun Prairie and other local towns, others who had just arrived from their homes thousands of miles away. This year Charlie's employed about a dozen young workers, some of whom are students, from Singapore, China, Poland, Ukraine, Macedonia and Bulgaria.
The food trailers used by Charlie's are big, air-conditioned and oh, so clean. "We're inspected by the health authorities one or more times at every fair - this is a lot more often than a regular restaurant," Miller says. "It cost us $750 for health permits for our five days at the Dane County Fair."
Having the right food supplies at the right time and right place is always a challenge. "We buy in big amounts," Miller says. "We have three refrigerated units, two trucks and a trailer, and can keep food frozen."
"My wife, Mary, is key to keeping things in the Miller organization running," Miller admits. "She does the payroll, contracts, insurance and bills. Her job is details, details and more details."
Life on the road would be difficult for a beginner, but the Millers are used to it and the family operates with top-quality equipment. The six mobile units the family and employees live in during the summer are air-conditioned and have showers and comfortable beds.
Charlie's can operate with one or nearly a dozen food stands for a day or a week. They were at the Midwest Horse Fair this spring in Madison; a one-day art fair in Baraboo; a Rochester, Minn., festival; Fourth of July celebrations in Green Bay and Brookfield; and at Lifest in Oshkosh.
Still to come are Wisconsin county fairs in Union Grove, Seymour and Walworth, and Spencer, Iowa; the UP State Fair in Escanaba, Mich.; the Wisconsin and Indiana State fairs; and the Alabama National Fair in Montgomery, Ala.
Miller says they did go to a series of Florida fairs in years gone by but the grandchildren are growing up and attending school so they cut the season a bit shorter.
Miller admits the pressures in running such a complex business are many and that the stress is great. "I'm getting near Social Security age and am willing to give up some of the responsibilities," he says. "Our son Doug is ready and willing to step in. I'll be around to help when that time comes."
If you see a Charlie's at an upcoming fair, stop and have lunch. You'll enjoy. And, say hi to Charlie, Mary, Doug or other members of the Miller family.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.