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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Hunger, courage and a good wife helped Nate Janousek become the sole caterer for the world’s largest outdoor rodeo.
Now overseeing 400 employees and 55 food stations at Cheyenne Frontier Days for the third straight year, Janousek took a few minutes Thursday to catch his breath and remember why he loves feeding huge crowds with unique foods.
Foods like the Chicken Fritter Sandwich: A vinegar-breaded and brined chicken patty, fried, nestled in a fresh fritter and drizzled with glaze. Or the Fruity Pebble shrimp po’boy: wild gulf shrimp coated in a beer and Fruity Pebble batter, seasoned with cayenne pepper, paprika and seasoned salt; smothering on a French bun.
Then there’s the craft beer from nearby farms, grown on that same land, by the hands that know it best.
And of course, since Cheyenne Frontier Days is a rodeo and we’re in Wyoming, the brisket sandwich: local angus beef smoked for 15 hours flavored, rubbed with coarse black pepper, cumin and spicy-sweet sauce, piled on a bun and topped with pickles and onions.
“So that we are not hungry”
All that glory started with an empty pantry.
“We were pretty poor,” recalls Janousek. He was a key child in a poor family, moving from one unaffordable house in Nebraska to another.
Home alone with his younger brother and sister, TV cooking shows playing comfortably in the background, Janousek scoured the nearly empty pantry shelves for foods that could go together and, more importantly, that would feed everyone.
“I would find a way to combine the ingredients in the pantry, so we wouldn’t go hungry,” he said.
At 14, he landed his first job at a Burger King and learned, wide-eyed, the best systems for speed and efficiency in food manufacturing.
As a young man, Janousek enrolled in college and earned a degree in philosophy. Then in 2006, after graduating, he got that philosophy degree – at the carnival.
“Weird, right? ” he said. “I’ve always found myself in the food and drink space.”
Janousek got into carnival catering through a friend named Jason Krueger. For Krueger, Janousek managed eight kiosks, before branching out later.
He met his wife, Stephanie, on the road in 2009. A former Notre Dame business and math student, Stephanie Janousek is “the glue that holds it all together.”
“I have all these crazy ideas, and I always think, ‘We can do anything.’ And she tells me when, and what we can afford. And what we can’t,” he said. “It’s really the secret sauce, if we’re being honest: my wife and I together .”
Passion and an appetite for risk are essential for a good cook, Janousek said. But a business owner must also live in a practical reality, and that’s where Stephanie comes in.
The couple have been married for 10 years and have three daughters, Audrey, 7, Sophia, 3, and Olivia, 10 months. Their catering company, Fun Biz Concessions Inc., rolls them on the road for nine months of the year for big events like the Houston Rodeo, Texas and Minnesota State Fairs, County Fairs in Los Angeles and San Diego, the Greeley Stampede.
But Cheyenne Frontier Days remains the ideal gig: the rodeo accounts for about a third of the company’s gross annual revenue.
Cheyenne Frontier Days opens Friday and lasts 10 days. It incorporates professional rodeo events and country and rock music concerts. The event has been around since 1897 – just seven years after Wyoming became a state.
The first rodeo
Starting small from childhood hunger and a traveling carnival and growing up to run the entire food service at Cheyenne Frontier Days is the American dream, Janousek said.
The second leg of his former carnival after joining in 2006 was Cheyenne Frontier Days, and Janousek said he had never seen anything like it.
“I couldn’t have imagined at that time that anyone had bigger food stalls, a bigger food operation than what they had here,” he recalls. “I admired that so much.”
He wrote down a personal goal: to become the big boss of this rodeo.
And three years ago he did.
“My wife and I had to do so many things to be able to come here and present (our company)…and I’m really proud of us for doing that,” he said.
They employ many part-time transplants from other countries like Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, all of which are certified safe. Operating on H2b, or nine-month work visas, workers travel with Fun Biz Concessions, sometimes bringing their children, sometimes leaving their families at home, and making occasional visits home during the busy dining season.
They can also have the American dream, Janousek said, if they work for it.
“We’re in a meritocracy here,” he said. “People who do more, they get more. But everyone is doing very well.
The bustling environment of hard work, the family’s own earnings, and the constant drive to do better and do more also have their own merit beyond any profit margin, Janousek said.
“We show our children that hard work pays off.
Courage behind the palace
Janousek’s eldest daughter begins participating in his unique dining experiences during the family’s three-month vacation, which they spend at their home in Texas.
Audrey’s ideas don’t always come true the first time. But, recalling his feeble youthful efforts, Janousek encourages his little boss as often as he can.
“You never want to stifle the creative process,” he said. “Because I’ve had so many bad ones. So many (recipes) that I thought were good that were zeros… I never want to discourage her from helping us come up with those ideas.
Plus, the kitchen teases the courage behind the palate.
“You have to be a risk taker. It’s like anything,” he said. “If you stick to the shallow end and do it the same way, play it safe, you’ll end up getting bored and your customers will get bored.”
It’s up to the chef to stay enthused by preparing food that resonates with his imagination in the kitchen, Janousek said.
And it’s his own indomitable passion, guided by his wife, fueled by his daughters, that separates his work from what he calls the “fancy” efforts of other event caterers, he added.
“I know (the passion) is showing. And we hope that when people line up waiting for food, they realize they’re in line for something worth the wait – something they can’t go out tomorrow and get somewhere else. .
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