With the new 2017 State Fair foods set to be announced in the next couple of weeks, the future of the Original Cheese Curds operation remains unsettled despite a closed-door settlement conference.
Art Boylan, a lawyer for Tom Mueller, son of one of the stand's founding partners, said a lawsuit remains a real possibility after a "disappointing" meeting with fair officials last Friday that yielded an unacceptable offer. "I wish we could figure out who is making decisions at the fair," Boylan said, adding that the officials at the meeting said they didn't have that authority.
Transparency is the goal for Boylan and Mueller. Despite weeks of efforts, Boylan said he and Mueller have been unable to untangle the process through which he lost a prized vending spot.
Mueller claims he followed procedures for a generational handoff of a state fair spot, but was blindsided this spring when he was told he was out. On Mueller's behalf, Boylan has prepared a draft lawsuit and expects a decision soon on whether to file.
Vendor permits for one of 300 registered spots are tough to get. State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer said he has 400 vendor applications to get into the two to three sites that come open every year. This year, the successor to the original curds is one of the lucky ones.
Hammer declined to say what the new operation will sell, but said that in choosing new vendors, staff looks at factors that include geographic balance, meaning they don't want two adjacent operations selling a similar product.
"The short convenient sound bite is, 'Fair kicks out Muellers,' " Hammer said. "We don't kick out longtime vendors; that's ridiculous."
Until this year, the cheese curd operation was run by a partnership called Mu-Skar. The Muellers and another family introduced the curds to the fair 41 years ago in the Food Building.
But last fall, Dick Mueller, Tom's father and the official contact for the fair, checked the box on official paperwork saying the operators wouldn't be returning.
Through fair procedures, he then sold the permanent physical building to the fair for $67,000. The fair sent Mueller a check, which he cashed. Then the fair sold the stand to the new vendor for an identical amount.
But Boylan said this week that Tom Mueller was told the fair is "going in a different direction" from curds. "There ought to be transparency and there ought to be fairness at the fair," Boylan said.
Tom Mueller's potential lawsuit alleges breach of contract on the part of the fair.
Not true, Hammer said, saying that the fair followed long-established procedures and that there was a long-established process to pass the stand to the next generation, but it wasn't followed by the Mueller family. "In our experience, a transfer almost always goes through, but you've got to get your stuff together."