Kelsie Vose was just 8 years old when she got involved in the family business: working a corn dog stand at the Illinois State Fair. Her first job was to squeeze the lemons used to make lemonade shake-ups.
"Growing up as a kid, my summers were not normal like the other kids," she said. "Once July 1 hit, I knew I had to work every weekday; we were open Monday through Friday. And I would go to work with my dad, and my little sister would come along once she was a little older," Vose said. While she may not have had the typical childhood summer experience, Vose said she enjoyed getting a paycheck. "It was so cool to know that I worked hard, and I did all of that to be able to buy something big of my own."
As a young child, her main goal was to learn how to count change so that she could work at the front counter. She spent years on lemons, the register and odd jobs before graduating to corn dog duty as a teen. "I was 15 or 16, and I knew I could do it," Vose said. "It's just been a part of my entire existence."
Kelsie Vose is part of the third generation of Vose corn dog vendors. Her grandfather, Bob Vose, founded Vose's Korndogs in 1966. Bob Vose used to deliver ice to vendors on the fairgrounds, and one day he filled in for a sick vendor.
"He fell in love with it, that was it. So, we have spent our whole lives out here," said Sandy Orr, Bob Vose's daughter. Orr has worked the stand for about 50 years now, and the business has continued to be run by family and family friends since its inception.
"Even my son, who's 10, he loves to come out and help shake a few lemonades, stick some hot dogs," Kelsie Vose said. "So, we are on our fourth generation of kids, along with a couple generations of help that have been friends of ours and their kids. And I hope it continues."
Vose said that her loyal customer base has strongly impacted the stand's 55 years of success. "We just see generations of customers. We have people that have known me since I was 6 years old, and now their great-grandchildren are out here. They come back each year, and we've had people that have proposed out here," she said.
However, more than five decades of running a family business has been anything but easy. Challenges include blending family time with running a business, burn injuries on the job and losing the family matriarch. "My grandma passed away during the 2017 state fair, and that was tough," Vose said.
She noted that the last few years have been particularly challenging, including the fairground flooding in 2016 and last year's cancellation. Vose said the family has been "bouncing back."
While the weather is a challenge some years, rain that postpones concert performances has actually driven more business to the stand as attendees were moved out of the Grandstand toward the storefront. "There's a bright side to things, I think," Vose said.
Vose currently works full time for the state in the Department of Human Services, but she takes 11 days of vacation time each year to run the stand, along with her dad. She said that one of the challenges of managing a family business is reconciling familial relationships with business interactions.
"You have to find that happy medium. You have to realize that this is only 11 days, and you can't let it make or break your relationships with your family. These are long hours, long days. It's hot and it's stressful and it's busy," Vose said.
Vose's Korndogs has two food service options side-by-side at the fairgrounds across from the Grandstand, but the family also works at other events throughout the year, with the main season taking place between May and late September. Despite the pandemic, the corn dog stand is already doing a great business leading up to the fair, and Vose said she expects most of her regular customers to return, as people are ready to get out and about after last year's summer at home.
The Voses' stand was open throughout the week in 2020 that the state fair would have taken place, but it wasn't the same, according to Vose, and business reflected that.
"You didn't hear the speakers going with Sam Madonia's voice, and Sutter's Taffy and Cullers' Fries clanging. The ambiance wasn't there." Vose said. "It was disappointing, and it was a sad part of August. It just wasn't what we all knew and have known our whole lives."
Not many stands have been around as long as Vose's, and some are not returning after 2020's hiatus, as some vendors have been unable or unwilling to continue business.
"I think 2019 was good, but it wasn't good enough to make up for a lot of the shortfalls the years before," said Vose. "So, a lot of them were probably on the fence before the pandemic happened."
The Voses benefit not only from each other's support, but also from the other vendor families. "We're a fair family. All of us vendors, we grew up together. We've been here for so many years, and we all go through the same trials and tribulations, but we also enjoy that camaraderie. We have such strong feelings toward the Illinois State Fair," Vose said.
The family is ready to welcome back customers, along with the fair's sense of familiarity, comfort and friends. "I want people to come out, and I want people to enjoy it. People that haven't been in years but are just ready to get out, I want to see them," Vose said. "Springfield needs it, too. That's a big part of their tourism." -Meredith Howard