Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The highs and lows of a fairground pitchman

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

September 2, 2009


The seated audience leaned forward, eagerly following the folksy wisdom of Guy Foubert.

A small crowd gathered behind those in seated in plastic chairs. Two women with baby strollers laughed. Men craned as Mr. Foubert displayed the food cooking while he delivered his patter.

He held up a pot filled to the brim with a medley of carrots, red peppers, and broccoli.

“Look at the colour of those vegetables, folks,” he said. “The greens are green, the yellows are yellow, the reds are red. Smell how sweet those vegetables are.”

He promised baked potatoes prepared at “microwave speed without all the radiation.”

He also offered roasted potatoes, corn on the cob, and roast chicken, all prepared in gleaming Kitchen Craft Cookware, “the original waterless cookware.”

As he diced the food into sample bits, toothpicks were handed out to the audience.

“We’re almost done, folks,” Mr. Foubert promised. “Almost time to sample the food.”

He spoke about the dangers of cooking with certain non-stick cookware, cited Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases, praised the qualities of the T-304 stainless steel used in manufacturing his cookware.

Minutes ticked past, toothpicks held in anticipation.

He extolled the healthy benefits of preparing food in his product, described the tenderness of the roast chicken he was slicing into bite-size squares.

“I tell you,” he said, “if Col. Sanders cooked that way he’d have made general.”

Mr. Foubert, 38, of Winnipeg, is a pitchman, though he prefers to be called an exhibitor, a demonstrator, or a show host. At least five times a day for the 17-day run of the Pacific National Exhibition, he can be found delivering a 30-minute spiel inside the Forum building.

He competes for attention amid the cacophony of other salesmen in what the fair calls Marketplace, crowded with stalls offering gizmos and gadgets promising to make our busy, workaday lives just a little easier. They sell objects named Wonder This and Miracle That.

There’s Thunder Head, “the space age shower.”

There’s the Original Ultimate Hose Nozzle, described as “the only nozzle you’ll ever need.”

There’s Bumpits (“The Full Hair Volumizing Solution”), which promises to turn your hair “from flat to fabulous in seconds.”

There’s a booth promoting Euro Strap (“perfect idea for bra straps”), not surprisingly staffed by a young woman of pulchritudinous attributes.

There’s the V-Slicer Plus, Super Sani toilet seats, Human Touch Massage Chairs.

But wait! There’s more!

There’s OxyLift (“facelift in a box”), Miracle Glue (“glues almost anything”), Sir Stickalot (“the lint roller that never needs refills”), Pet Perfect (“the ultimate 2-in-1 de-shedder and rake brush”), and Frisper Freshkeeper (“the easy, stylish way to keep food fresh, longer’).

Floors were mopped, vegetables sliced, clothes steamed.

A shammy pitchman tried to attract a crowd with a rhyming call of “Don’t be shy. Give it a try.”

On television, the silver-tongued Vince (The ShamWow Guy) Shlomi and the late Billy Mays became rich from fast-paced commercials in which the simple sales points of a 30-second presentation is drilled home by frequent repetition.

At the fair, a pitchman is narrator of his own fortune.

They endure more rejection in an afternoon than most of us experience in a lifetime.

“It sucks,” Mr. Foubert said. “It’s very difficult not to take it personally. You get one no. Then a second. OK, what am I doing wrong? Is it me? Then you have self-confidence issues. At that point, you can say, ‘Take it.’ And people won’t even take it.”

A sale, however, is a confirmation of the veracity of the pitch, the trustworthiness of the product, the personal connection between pitchman and fairgoer.

“That sale is like a high,” he said.

He has been on the Western Canadian fairground circuit for most of the summer. After finishing the PNE gig on Labour Day, he will take his show to Edmonton, making for a long stretch away from his wife, eight-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter back home in Winnipeg. The son of a construction worker, Mr. Foubert has been working direct sales since age 14, when he became a door-to-door vaccuum-cleaner salesman.

After completing his pitch, he passed around paper plates of his cooked goodies. The audience eagerly gobbled up the samples.

Towards the end of his pitch, after an entertaining half-hour presentation, he made his first mention of price. A skillet is $499 (“less than the price of a Callaway driver”), a gourmet slow cooker is $489 (“less than a microwave oven”), a deluxe set is $3,695 (“less than a flatscreen plasma television”), while the works is $5,295 (“less than half the price of one of the hot tubs you saw outside.”)

“How many of you liked my cookware?” he asked, to approving nods. “Good thing. I would have cried like a baby after all that work if you didn’t like my cookware.”

In the end, all left the presentation empty-handed. He thought some might return by the end of the day.

He knows no one walks into the fair planning to purchase a $2,195 cookware set.

“When a guy can stand up and make you laugh, make you chuckle, life is good,” the pitchman said.

“Life is good,” he added, “as long as you’ve got good cookware.”