For many, this year’s Canadian National Exhibition has meant more than a return to the familiar sights and sounds of the end-of-summer event.
“As much as this is a generational business for me and a family business, it’s also something that is an experience that generations have gone to the CNE and enjoyed,” said Sam Scanga, owner of several food booths at The Ex, referring to attendees’ love of his Primo Spaghetti 1.99.
Sam’s parents operated booths down at the CNE 40 years ago and he said he helped out from when he was “quite young.”
“They were here in the eighties and started off with different concepts and different booths,” he said.
“And over the years, we’ve evolved into multiple locations, and it’s been just an amazing experience.”
Sam has since taken over from his parents and now has his kids involved involved as well, operating booths selling a range of foods from spaghetti, to deep-fried pasta, and deep-fried cookie dough.
He said the two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was “difficult,” but is happy to see the event back up and running.
“One thing I will say about the CNE is that everybody and all the vendors that are in this building operate like a family,” he said.
“I’ve been here for many years. There’s different operators that have been here for, you know, seasons and seasons and seasons.”
He said throughout the pandemic, they talked to each other over the phone and provided support.
“That’s something that maybe behind the scenes you may not recognize, but it’s something that is great that I hold dear to,” Sam said.
Sam’s wife Robin Scanga is also operating her own booth at The Ex for the first time, after witnessing and also helping Sam and his family operate their stalls over the years.
She said she has “always dabbled in a lot of different mediums,” and eventually settled on starting “Robin’s Nest Soap Company.”
“Once we were back this year and I had started this business, my husband mentioned, ‘Well, we’re going to be here anyway. Why don’t you try it out?'” she said.
“And so my kids all work over there. My one daughter works here with me sometimes and it’s a whole family thing.”
Their children, Mason, Luke, and Sydney, were all happy to see The Ex return.
“It kind of felt like there was something missing,” Mason said of the past two years.
“Because, you know, every summer we all know towards the end we take time off to come bond as a family here and work.”
Mason, now 18 years old, said he began helping at The Ex when he was just 13. And he said when he eventually has kids, he will pass the tradition onto them.
“100 per cent absolutely. They’ve got to know the things that we went through,” he said.
When they were younger, the Scanga kids would often roam around the CNE as their parents worked, visiting various vendors including Tammy Zekan’s “You Name It” teddy bear booth.
Zekan is still operating at the CNE and, like the Scangas, has a family story tied to her shop, which offers customized teddy bears where customers can get their names embroidered.
“It’s good to be back,” she said.
Zekan has been coming to the CNE for decades and said it “just keeps getting better and better.”
Zekan and her mother started their business more than 30 years ago and is seeing customers from many years ago return to them.
“The children that received our bears are now having children, and they’re excited to get one that matches theirs,” she said.
“It’s just nice that people that receive them as kids are now buying them for their kids.”
Andrew Gidaro, the director of operations for Astro Amusements at the CNE, operates 26 games at The Ex.
His business down at the CNE started with his father, who worked when he was 12 years old for a woman operating a ring toss game.
“Eventually he took over her concessions and from there he grew the business to have a number of concessions,” Gidaro said.
“Eventually my mom came down for a summer job and ended up working here and from there they ended up getting together and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Today, Gidaro, his bother, sister, and stepsister are all involved in the business.
He said the closure for the past two years “pretty tough,” with his revenue dropping down to zero.
“Thank God things are back to normal and and people are coming out and they’re supporting us by playing the games and riding the rides,” he said.
Gidaro said eventually he hopes his children, who are currently aged nine, six and four, eventually take over the family business.
“It’s too early to say whether they want to take over, but I can tell you they love it,” he said.
“They’re the third generation. I hope they take it over.”
The CNE is heading into its final weekend for the year and wraps up on Sept. 5 — Labour Day.
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