BILLINGS — If you stop by MontanaFair in Billings during its nine-day run, you'll find all the classic food like corn dogs, cotton candy and caramel apples - but there's a vendor who offers a dish that's a bit more healthy and has a 13-year legacy across fairs in Montana.
Patrick Obrien owns Bourbon Chicken Skewers, a business based in Great Falls that he started in 2009. His stand is about the only place at MontanaFair you can get steamed veggies served on a bed of jasmine rice and topped with a pork or chicken skewer.
“We don’t have a fryer. We don’t have a microwave. We cook on these grills. The fat can fall away and it does. We serve steamed vegetables, and at the fair, that’s sort of a rare thing to find, but we wanted to offer a healthy option and we attract people from all over the fairgrounds who come to get steamed vegetables. We do really well with that. It’s an add on to our jasmine rice bowl. We call it 'the works bowl,'" Obrien told MTN News on Tuesday.
From June to September, Obrien and his team sell food at fairs and other events across eastern Montana. He started as a food vendor in 2007 at a farmers market selling cinnamon roasted nuts.
“I had learned at the hockey games that those cinnamon roasted nuts follow your nose. I was doing it at the farmers market, but nuts are heavy and the shipping is expensive and the profit margin really wasn't that lucrative," Obrien said.
Obrien said his next venture selling street tacos and Coney dogs didn't quite pan out because too many others were offering similar choices.
Two years later, with the help and advice of another food vendor named Porky Paul, Obrien switched to selling chicken on a skewer while Paul sold the pork. Obrien said eventually when Paul got out of the business, he picked up selling both pork and chicken at his booth.
Obrien said everything is fresh with his food. The meat is all fresh and he makes the marinades from scratch.
“We do everything the hard way," said Obrien.
He's also picky about the selection of rice. It has to be jasmine rice from Thailand, and the secret is to cook with water for 12 minutes in a pot with a clear lid, so you can see the cooking process.
“We select it for texture, flavor and aroma. We’re really proud of our rice. We’re really happy with the way each batch turns out. We have our own way of steaming it. A very common comment is, ‘I’ve never had rice like this,’ or, ‘best rice I’ve ever had in my life,’” Obrien said.
This year, MontanaFair has a wider selection of food options compared to 2020. MontanaFair staff only allowed food vendors from inside Yellowstone County to operate last year. Obrien said the only fair he got to last year was in Miles City, and this year has been better for business.
“Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve been up 10 to 15 percent. People just want to get out and want to do things. It’s been real busy everywhere we go," Obrien said.
For some, the fancy fair food is a family business. Brian Chadwick, owner and operator of Chadwick Concessions, has been involved with fair food since he was nine years old.
“It’s kind of been in our blood. My dad worked for the people in the Coke tent when he was a kid along with my cousin, my grandma. We ended up buying it from them about 20 years ago. We’ve just kind of been out here working the fair since I was a kid and my dad was a kid," Chadwick said.
The Coke tent is now sponsored by Pepsi, but it's one of the only fair food vendors that offer booth seating. Chadwick said his cousin owns the tent and he owns and operates other stands that strictly sell funnel cakes and cheese curds made from Wisconsin cheese.
The two items usually sell about equally throughout the run of the fair, Chadwick said.
“One does well during the day. One does well during the night, and it all just kind of depends on the temperatures. They go in spurts. When someone orders a cheese curd, it seems like you get 100 cheese curds in a row. Then someone goes with a funnel cake and it does the same thing," Chadwick said.
The funnel cake and cheese curd stands travel to MontanaFair and the Montana State Fair in Great Falls every year, Chadwick said. And the Pepsi tent will additionally travel to Blackfoot, Idaho.
This is Chadwick's 30th year in fair concessions and looking back on it all, he said seeing family and friends is the highlight every year.
“I no longer live in Montana, so I get to kind of come here and see kids I grew up with and family every time I’m back. That’s what I enjoy the most about it. Obviously, the fair itself is great, but we get a lot of our friends and family that come work with us, so it makes it a lot of fun," Chadwick said.
And over the course of 30 years, the business of fair food has changed. Chadwick noted that people have thrown new things in the fryer, like Oreo cookies. But a noticeable change in the Midway landscape is the addition of local restaurants and food trucks over time, Chadwick said.
“There’s a lot more vendors, not necessarily even more booths, but a lot more vendors bringing in different, unique stuff. You didn’t see a lot of, Taste of Asia or a gyro. You didn’t see that 20 years ago, or at least I didn’t notice it. You know, it was all the corn dogs and cotton candies and caramelized apples, but now you’re kind of seeing a lot more varied food too," Chadwick said.