Billy Newcomb had Abby Vanderwerf, 9, and her brother Daniel, 6, from Willmar, mesmerized seconds after he started his pitch selling his salsa maker at the Minnesota State Fair on Monday. Their mother Stacy looks on.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

Billy Newcomb had Abby Vanderwerf (9 years old) from Willmar meserized seconds after he started his pitch selling his salsa maker at the Minnesota State Fair.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

Betty Kriedberg showed Collin Westgard, 16, from Eagan and his grandmother from Apple Valley how to make bows using the Bowmaker gadget she was selling at the Minnesota State Fair on Monday.

Feed Loader,

Dave Johnston drew a crowd seconds after he started his pitch as he worked the crowd selling Sham-Wows.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

Polished pitchmen – and their wares – are popular fare at the fair

  • Article by: John Ewoldt
  • Star Tribune
  • August 26, 2013 - 9:45 PM

It isn’t the Pronto Pups and day-old piglets that draw Marlys Petznick of Northwood, Iowa, to the fair. It’s the pitches and the people delivering them.

“I almost bought a steam mop for $149, and all my floors are carpeted,” she said. “I just like listening to them.”

Strolling through the grandstand, the Merchandise Mart and the Creative Activities buildings, she and thousands more like her will pass hundreds of people hawking salsa makers, miracle whisks and veggie peelers.

Their spiel is familiar — fast-paced, entertaining and as cool and smooth as a malt from the Dairy Building — but who are they? Do they use a script? Do they ever take a break? How much money do they make?

More than 500 nonfood concessionaires pitch their products at the Minnesota State Fair, according to fair officials, and even though they’re as commercial as anything seen on TV, people still want to see them in person. “The pitches have always been a show that draws people and attention,” said Jim Sinclair, the fair’s deputy general manager.

The events are so popular that only the best sellers are brought in to pitch, said Nick Cenaiko, president of Cenaiko Cos., the promoter of the ShamWow super-absorbent orange towel and JD’s Salsa Mix. “You don’t go to the world’s fair with high school-league talent.”

Those with the gift of gab can gross between $1,000 to $4,000 a day selling a $20 item, said Mike Ketchel, a nationwide pitchman with 20 years on the job. Commissions are usually between 25 and 30 percent.

“The Minnesota State Fair is by far the top fair in the nation for per-day sales,” said Billy Newcomb, president of Hopkins-based Syndicate Sales, which sells a salsa maker, ratchet pruner and super whisk at the fair. Syndicate makes about 20 percent or more of its annual $2 million in sales during the 12-day fair, Newcomb said.

Still, it isn’t like winning the lottery. Pitchmen work long hours, travel constantly and usually pay for their own food and lodging. Ketchel describes it as a job with golden handcuffs: “You can make a great living, but you’re married to it.”

Newcomb, who has 12 pitchmen and women working the fair this year (including 10 family members), sells products at six state and county fairs for three months and then works home-and-garden shows for six months. “We may not work 12 months of the year, but we work 110- to 120-hour weeks when we are working.”

During the fair, the super sellers gush like verbal fire hoses from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. day after day. It’s one hour on and one hour off for most, and they use the time off the soap box to take orders and stock merchandise.

Dave Johnston of Anoka, who’s been hawking variations of the ShamWow for nearly 30 years, leaves for the fair at 6:15 a.m. and gets home around 11:30 p.m. Unlike most pitchmen, Johnston has another full-time job. He doesn’t make enough commission in 12 days to quit his job as a biodiesel plant manager, but he said pitching has helped him pay for Montessori schooling for two kids and buy snowmobiles and four-wheelers.

Fighting off a summer cold

Before the fair starts in late August, Johnston stocks up on Allegra to ward off a summer cold that could damage profits. Many salespeople bring bottles of water by the case to keep their vocal cords lubricated. Cenaiko said that some people use lozenges, Chloraseptic spray or a hot water/honey combo. He advises his salespeople to simply let the microphone do the work.

The most serious pitch people are usually the ones wearing headset microphones, Ketchel said. The State Fair doesn’t limit the number of people who can use microphones, but it does regulate the volume and the distance between them so they don’t overlap, according to spokeswoman Brienna Schuette.

When the fair starts, the pros never need to study a script or peek at a cheat sheet. There’s no need to rehearse because they’ve been doing the pitch all year long, said Jonathan Rosen of International Culinary Consultants, which promotes the Swiss Peeler. Experienced peddlers move from fair to fair, doing the pitch 50 to 100 times per day, depending on the length of the spiel.

Some take only five minutes, but the longest take about 20 to 30. The extended-pitch experience is easily exposed by the presence of chairs in front of the presentation booth. “If you’re going to ask people to spend $1,500 or more on a cookware set, you have to give them a place to sit down,” Ketchel said.

Jokes that are written into the script may be updated and new selling features may be added, but generally the script is sacrosanct. “You don’t mess with success,” said Johnston.

Kevin Frazier, who was visiting the fair from Los Angeles, bought a ShamWow after laughing at Johnston’s declaration: “I use it to clean up after my dog, the golden reliever.”

Frazier likes the pitchmen and women at the fair because their approach is actually softer than he’s seen elsewhere. “The pitches are pure fun,” he said. “And the pressure to buy is nothing compared to Mexico City.”

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633

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