By Greg Price
As Cornfest fast approaches, The Taber Times decided to take a look into a hugely popular attraction at the event that has not been commonly examined in our special supplement — the beer garden.
Judging by how much product is sold, it is one of the most enjoyed staples of Cornfest celebrations year after year.
Cracking open a libation and catching up with old friends and new, the beer garden has been a major fundraiser for the Kinsmen Club of Taber in recent years. Every year the revelry for the beer garden goes on where it almost gets lost exactly how intensive the effort it is to allow people to sit back and relax with old friends over a cold frosty one.
“It’s a pretty big feature for Cornfest that is always well attended,” said Tod Pickerell, Taber Kinsmen Club beer garden chairperson.
The Taber and District Chamber of Commerce essentially hires the Kinsmen Club of Taber to look after the beer garden. The fee the chamber pays the Kinsmen is one half of the net profits that are made from the beer garden.
“That net profit can fluctuate. Last year for example, with the weather being so lousy, the sales were way down and we hardly netted anything,” said Pickerell. “Typically we (Kinsmen) net anywhere between $10,000 and $15,000. Last year the net profit (for the Kinsmen’s half) was $1,800 because the weather was so poor.”
As the popularity of the beer garden has grown, it has made the Kinsmen Club of Taber have to hire groups with the initiative. The highest gross sales the beer garden has had has been $79,000 over two days according to Pickerell.
“We have 20 or so guys in our club and every guy is expected to help out to some degree. If you book holidays as a Kinsmen during Cornfest weekend, everybody is looking at you thinking, what’s up with you a$$hole,” said Pickerell with a chuckle. “You don’t have to be there both nights until closing, but you have to be there one of the nights. Some guys are there both days or nights, other guys do just one day.”
“We realize people have family commitments, taking kids to the fireworks or whatever. Everyone’s situation is different, but everyone has to put in some time. You have to be there for set up on the Friday and clean up on the Sunday.”
That includes some set up on the Thursday of Cornfest and the take down of the garden on the Sunday after Cornfest.
The clean up while the beer garden are going on is handled by the K-40 Club. When the beer garden are opened up at 4 p.m. on the Friday of Cornfest, the K-40 Club tends to the clean up of cans during the early hours of the beer garden on the Friday and Saturday of Cornfest.
For the last four years, St. Mary’s grad parents have been providing approximately 15 paid volunteers on Friday and Saturday night of Cornfest to help serve during prime time between 8 p.m. and midnight.
“That’s the smoking busy time where we need all hands on deck. On top of that, we hire Vauxhall Spurs parents which help from noon to 8 p.m. on Saturday along with the K-40s, serving security, selling beer tickets,” said Pickerell.
Security for the beer garden years ago used to be under the Coaldale Kinsmen Club, eventually evolving into a service Pickerell accesses out of Lethbridge.
“Security is something we would never do ourselves, because we know everybody and it comprises your ability to do your job properly. It’s nice to have outside security staff,” said Pickerell. “The last three or four years, I use a guy out of Lethbridge and he’s bar staff. He’s been doing it most of his life and he lines up 15 or 16 guys for me for Friday and Saturday night pay them individually. It’s worked out really well, because they are experienced.”
Pickerel tipped his hat to the Taber Police Service as well in helping keep the Cornfest beer garden regulated. Organizers encourage the police to do walk throughs.
“It keeps everyone on better behaviour if there is a police presence. There’s a real police presence at midnight when the lights come on and it’s time for people to move out. The police and our security staff together form a sort of gauntlet at the exit because maybe someone is trying to sneak a beer out,” said Pickerell. “It keeps a lid on everything and keeps the meatheads from letting their egos get away from them.”
The empties collection are a tough job. The Kinsmen provide barrels with a hole cut in them that are clearly marked that are supposed to be for recycling while other clearly-marked barrels are for garbage. But, when the party is flowing, several revelers cannot be bothered with the difference.
“Everything goes everywhere and it’s one big mix. But, we don’t want to lose a bunch of empties (for revenue), so we don’t throw the garbage bags away. We take all the bags and throw them on a trailer provided by Kei Nishida who is a big supporter of Cornfest, and on Sunday morning all those bags are ripped apart and all the cans get separated. We have hired different groups over the years to do that, right now it’s the Taber Food Bank,” said Pickerell. “It’s a lot of groups we hire out, partially out of necessity to make the function work. We don’t have enough bodies to cover everything, but that’s what the Kinsmen Club is all about, is distributing money in the community and these are organizations we want to support anyway.”
To understand the magnitude of Cornfest weekend as far as alcohol sales goes, the beer garden had 20,472 units sold (beer and coolers) in 2011. That does not include the bars in town that are packed during Cornfest weekend. Given the square footage of the Cornfest beer garden, the liquor licence allows for a maximum capacity of 1,000.
“Is there a 1,000 people in there at a time? It’s difficult to gauge. You can catch people coming in, but there’s people going out the exit just as fast as they are coming in,” said Pickerell. “But from 9 until midnight, it’s packed. It’s busy, busy. It’s a becoming for people where you maybe see people you haven’t seen in years.”
To ensure patrons get home safe, there is the taxi services stand located right behind the beer garden which also includes the fundraising Taxi Cob program.
Taber Kinsmen’s decision to close the beer garden at midnight is two fold — safety issues and also respect for the business community in which Cornfest weekend is a big moneymaker for them.
“That’s when all the problems occur which is after midnight to 2 a.m., that’s the peak of partying and intoxication, and the bars more equipped to handle that,” said Pickerell. “Also, while the beer garden are humming, we don’t want to take away from the businesses in town. I pushes the traffic to them and all the bars fill up. I can’t speak for all bars but I know ours (the Royal), it’s smoking busy on Saturday because we’re giving away free burgers, hot dogs and there’s the car show where people are walking in all the time. People want to be at the beer garden because that’s where the action is with the stage entertainment and fireworks, but after midnight the bars are jam packed.”
The Kinsmen could take advantage of the popularity of Cornfest and gouge customers with their prices, but choose not to.
“You look at what the price is for a drink at something like Stampede, and it’s outrageous,” said Pickerell. “Cornfest is advertised as the biggest and free festival, so we try and keep prices down. We try and charge the same price as you’ll see anywhere else (locally in Taber), so like $4 a beer.”
Cornfest beer garden has jumped back and forth between Molson Coors and Labatt Brewing Company as both jockey for the alcohol rights to the Cornfest beer garden.
“It hasn’t been a function of ‘well, you’re giving us more than they are,’ it’s been more there is a lot of turnover in the business, so the local beer rep disappears and they don’t replace them and we need someone quick, so it’s the first person that’s in front of us so we’re no scrambling,” said Pickerell.
Rest assured thirsty patrons, the beer for 2015 Cornfest will be Labatt’s where Bud Light will be plentiful.
“You know what a phenomena Bug Light is around here. The years we have gone Molson, they say ‘where the hell is the Bud Light?’ From 2011 to 2013, we were Molson, last year we were back to Labatt. Everyone will be happy this year that we have Bud Light,” said Pickerell. “Bud Light, we sell twice as much as the other two brands (Budweiser and Kokanee) put together easily.”
Some liquor representatives have tried to take advantage of the Cornfest beer garden situation by pushing new product onto the populous. The Kinsmen Club have tried it before, but noted it’s not worth the headache to patrons.
“Some years I’ve agreed to it, but sometimes it’s a lousy product and no one wants it. The other difficulty is we have those big, galvanized troughs that UFA allows us to use and each trough has each of the products,” said Pickerell. “Last year for example, we had eight different products and it was a nightmare. You are digging, looking for a specific product and you’re losing time, it’s a pain in the ass getting it out of the tub. When you have a packed beer garden, you can’t have any down time. It sounds like a simple thing, but at prime time, you can’t be wasting time. It’s not a free for all, there are certain rules you have to abide by. You can only serve two beers per person and they all have to be cracked open. We don’t have an offsales licence. These are all on-the-table sales.”
Another draw for the Kinsmen Club of Taber taking on the beer garden is the money raised is unencumbered with no strings attached to where it can be used in the community.
“If we do a car ruffle, there are very specific rules to where that money can be spent, same as a casino. But with this, it’s unencumbered money. We need that type of revenue where we can use it to help the community where we find fit,” said Pickerell.