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Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 02:20 pm

A taste of the fair

Jack “Gibby” Gibson

This year's Illinois State Fair is just a memory; the cows, carnival rides and concessions won't be back until August. But if you didn't get your fill, a new downtown restaurant offers a chance to relive the fair year-round.

Gibby's Orbits, promising a "taste of the fair," opened its doors in July. The owners, Pam and Jack "Gibby" Gibson, made a name for themselves by selling donuts and lemon shake-ups at local fairs and festivals. Now they're betting fans of the state fair will want to enjoy the food without the crowds, parking and the smell of livestock.

The Gibby's menu features fair standards, including Chicago-style hot dogs, fruit shake-ups, chili dogs, bratwursts, Italian beef and snow cones, as well as breakfast items like muffins and pancakes and sausage on a stick. Seasonal foods offered this month include sliced caramel apples, apple cider and hot wassail.

But do people really want to eat fair food throughout the year? "Yes they do," says Pam Gibbons. "They don't get sick of it. It's how people know us. We have a unique niche. Customers say, 'Oh, you have fair food all year round. I can get my fix,' or 'I didn't get to the fair this year, or it was too expensive to go the fair, but now I can come here.'"

The white walls of the small business are decorated with colorful murals painted by local children. One wall sports a large cartoon rabbit, while another mural currently in the process features a red and yellow carnival tent. Plastic tables and chairs with umbrellas also give the eatery the feeling of an outdoor picnic. Christian music plays in the background. Bible verses are printed on the menus and walls. The Gibbonses encourage more children to become involved in decorating the walls and eventually want to host parties for local youth groups. "We want to incorporate the community and get them involved," she says.

Gibby Gibbons started selling mini donuts 18 years ago as a fund-raiser for a local Boy Scout troop and never turned back. He soon bought a donut machine and concession stand and began selling them at local festivals, fairs and events, including the Illinois State Fair, where he became known as "The Donut Man." The mini donuts are made from a mix supplied Lil' Orbits Inc., a Minnesota-based supplier of donut-making equipment and ingredients.

Through the years, Gibby Gibbons expanded the menu and built a loyal of customers who'd find his stand at various locations around town. Gibbons, 60, who has worked as a truck driver, grocery store manager and meat cutter during his varied career -- and often two or three jobs simultaneously -- kept selling donuts on weekends and after work during special events.

Pam, a Chicago native with a 30-year career in human resources, says she drew on her experience as a carhop and waitress many years ago to quickly learn the food business when the couple was married two year ago. The couple, who have five children and 16 grandchildren between them, retired from their other careers a year ago to operate the concession stand full-time, most recently from the corner of Lawrence and Veterans, before deciding to open the restaurant. They also provide concessions for the Springfield Junior Blues home hockey games at the Nelson Center.

The smell of donuts frying is the first thing you notice when entering the door. The donuts, which are small, light and fluffy, are always hot and fresh. Gibbons claims he can prepare a dozen donuts per minute. He doesn't even drop the batter into the hopper, which then cuts, flips and fries them, until a customer places an order. "I've never put my donuts under a heat lamp," he says, proudly. The most popular items, besides the donuts, are the fruit shake-ups, which come in flavors like strawberry-lime, peach and pineapple and are made with fresh fruit.

Despite fair food having a bad rap for being unhealthy, the couple says their donuts are cooked in cholesterol-free soybean oil and they prepare other items with health-conscious customers in mind. "People say they like the greasy food from the fair, but they really don't. If we can steam it, we will. Our brats are steamed, then broiled, so they're not as greasy," Pam says.

Gibby's Orbits is located at 319 E. Monroe.
Hours are 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri.
Phone: (217) 306-3454 or (217) 306-3208.
Web site: www.geocities.com/gibbysorbits/donuts/html

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