By Melissa Powell
Seattle Times business reporter
Kent Hojem sees a lot of things during each year’s Puyallup Fair — from sheep and cattle judging to carnival games of chance. A lasting image is the long line that weaves out from the Fisher Scones booth late at night.
“People are just trying to get scones to take home,” says Hojem, the fair’s president since 2005. “You see how important they are.”
Perennial fairgoers know where to find the scones at Washington’s largest fair, which opens Friday. Fisher Scones has occupied the same corner booth since 1915.
What first started as a promotional tool for the company’s flour mill has turned into a mega seller. Fisher estimates that it will sell its 100 millionth scone during the 17-day Puyallup Fair run.
Mary Dahlquist remembers going to the fair and her first Fisher scone in 1958, when she was 32 years old. The Canadian native was living in Seattle with her husband, a University of Washington student. Going to the fair was a family tradition for him and was “something you had to do,” she says
“It’s such a good taste with raspberry jam,” says Dahlquist, now 85 and a fair regular. “It’s just perfect. I wouldn’t want to change it in any way.”
In 1998, her daughter persuaded her to enter Fisher’s scone-baking contest. She’s entered almost every year since, and she’s currently the reigning champion. She took the Fisher Scone mix — flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and shortening — and added a “Hawaiian twist” with pineapple juice, coconut, dried mango and macadamia nuts.
“I don’t think they can be improved upon, but they always ask for innovations,” Dahlquist says.
The Fisher family came to Seattle in 1905 from Los Angeles because “it was a promising city on the coast,” says company CEO Mike Maher. They put grain elevators in Idaho, Montana and Eastern Washington and opened the largest flour mill in the Western United States in Seattle in 1911.
The company started looking for ways to promote the mill and its flour, which led to baking exposition scones for fairs and creating Fisher Radio, now the publicly traded Fisher Communications.
The Puyallup Fair president at the time, William Paulhamus, wanted to bring scones to the fair. He invited Fisher Mills to sponsor the product at the 15-year-old Puyallup Fair in 1915. Paulhamus even donated the jam for the scones from his own company to attract Fisher Mills. The scones sold for a nickel each.
John Heily and Ron Wise purchased Fisher Mills from the Fisher family in 1977 and started Conifer Specialties, a family-owned specialty food and drink-mix manufacturing company in Woodinville. Conifer Specialties, a $30 million enterprise, manufactures Canterbury Naturals and Canterbury Organics, along with Fisher Scones.
Maher worked in a Fisher Scone booth at a fair in Oregon as a high-school student in 1978. He came back every summer. After he graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in business management, he went to work full time for the company. Maher became CEO of Conifer Specialties in 2004.
In 1989, Fisher Scones began manufacturing Fisher Scone Mix. In the late 1990s, the company began making other packaged goods “to fill the void for the rest of the year,” Maher says. He said Fisher Scones profits are split almost evenly between retail and fair sales. The company has been growing 100 percent annually for 10 years, he says.
“Consumer packaging goods is what we’re trying to drive into future,” Maher said. Fisher’s cornbread mix, scone mixes, pancake mix and biscuit mix range from $10.89 to $25.55 at its online store. The mixes are also available at local grocery and specialty stores.
Maher says Fisher now uses around 40 tons of jam from Oregon during the fair. He says the company determines the number of scones made by tracking the number of scone-mix bags used.
“Fisher had a brochure that stated the number of scones sold through the 1960s,” Maher says. “I took the combined number and added our annual totals to come up with the estimate for the 100 millionth scone sold.”
Though the lines are usually the longest at the Puyallup Fair, Fisher serves its made-on-site scones at 39 summer fairs and festivals throughout the Northwest.
At the Bellevue Arts Museum’s artsfair July 29, Ken Zugner kept moving inside the Fisher Scone wagon as he struggled to keep up with the never-ending line of customers who shell out $1.25 for a scone or $13 for a baker’s dozen.
Zugner, who has been with the company for 21 years, is one of 50 full-time employees for Fisher Scones. The company also hires around 400 seasonal temporary employees.
Zugner says he doesn’t get too stressed as he rushes to roll and flatten the dough before placing 40 scones on each of his five trays and placing them in the oven, but it gets hot inside the wagon, which is about the size of a U-Haul truck.
Customer Bettie Heinsheimer says she attended the Puyallup Fair for 30 years. But once she moved to Magnolia, she says, it was harder to make it there. She was excited to see the scones at the arts fair and bought a baker’s dozen so she could freeze some for later.
Dahlquist, who still makes the long drive to Puyallup from her Newport Hills home, always brings home extras, too. She says she even used to deliver scones to the manager of a local grocery store, before it closed down, because he once told her that he really likes them.
Dahlquist, like Hojem, the fair president, has a similar memory of the Puyallup Fair. The scone prices have increased over the years, she says, but one thing has remained constant — there’s always a steady line of customers at the Fisher booth under the grandstand.
Melissa Powell: 206-464-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org