Brad Ribar started working at the Minnesota State Fair as a kid, picking up garbage. But he would have bigger ideas, and they would take form in an ear of corn.
The fair didn't have a sweet corn stand in the early 1980s when Ribar was in college looking for business opportunities. Corn, the conventional wisdom went, wouldn't fly at the fair. Ribar thought otherwise, even devoting his graduate business thesis to his vision of selling sweet corn.
Today Ribar, 55, is the fair's corn king. His stand is one of the top-grossing food businesses at one of the nation's top-grossing state fairs. "This was my dream," he said.
Minnesota's state fair only lasts 12 days, but it's a big business for food vendors. For some, like Ribar, it's a vocation; for others, an extension of existing food operations. But for everyone, it's a potentially lucrative gig -- Ribar clears $100,000 -- that can take several years to land.
There are 576 vendors in line for a coveted spot at the fair, but only five or six rookies are allowed in each year. "It sounds a bit daunting," acknowledged Dennis Larson, the fair's license administration manager.
Ribar waited five years before he got approval to sling corn in 1985. But his attachment to the fair started long before. His grandfather worked in fairgrounds maintenance for over 60 years. Ribar, an Eagan native, got on a sanitation crew at age 11, summer work he'd do until his corn stand idea germinated.
The 'bulb went off'
It came in his early 20s during a visit to the Wisconsin State Fair, where his uncle ran a beer garden. Near his uncle's taps stood a roasted corn joint. Ribar tried an ear and "then the light bulb went off," as he put it. Fair corn he'd eaten before was tough and chewy, but not this stuff. The key to quality -- roasting.
Ribar set out to bring roasted corn to the Minnesota State Fair, honing his strategy during his MBA studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. At first, fair officials weren't sold. Sweet corn, so the reasoning went, was fraught with sanitation peril: Fairgoers would toss husks all about, leaving a big mess.
But from his trash-picking experience, Ribar knew better. Meat eaters didn't just blithely jettison rib bones and the like, so why would corn nibblers be any different?
After three years he convinced fair administrators, though it took two more years to find a big enough space for the stand he envisioned. He got it when a meatloaf purveyor retired, giving up prime real estate near the grandstand, where Ribar peddles corn to this day.
He siphoned his savings and borrowed from his dad to come up with the $140,000 -- $290,000 in 2011 dollars -- he needed for equipment and other capital costs. "We took a big risk, but it paid off," Ribar said, referring to himself and his wife, Lori. They met at the fair during his garbage detail days; she was working in a corn dog stand.
Sales started slowly during Ribar's first year. But then the hosts of popular local TV show Steve & Sharon stopped by one evening for a live broadcast. "Suddenly it got busy, and we've been busy ever since."
Nowadays, Ribar sells 180,000 to 190,000 ears of corn during the fair's run, all of it trucked in from a farm near Waverly, Minn. In 2010, Ribar's stand rang up almost $625,000 in gross sales, according to fair records.
Fair administrator Larson said food vendors usually take home 25 percent to 33 percent of what's left after taxes, the fair's 15 percent cut and their own operating expenses, which in Ribar's case includes 4,000 pounds of butter and wages for at least 90 employees.
That would leave Ribar with an estimated net fair income last year of $105,000 to $138,000, not including ongoing capital costs. And while the corn stand is his biggest operation, he branched out years ago into cheese curds at state fairs in Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as at some county fairs.
Getting into the fair
Median gross revenue for a food vendor at the Minnesota State Fair is about $50,000, and from that, operators will usually take home $15,000 to $18,000, Larson said. And once a food vendor gets into the fair, it's difficult to get kicked out.
Getting in is the trick. It can take one year, or 10 years. "There's no magic to it," Larson said. "There's a misconception that you have to have a quirky new product on a stick to get in." But many times, it's simply a matter of "the right product for the right space," he said.
For example, one of this year's newbies, Minneapple Pie, is plunked amid stands selling pork chops on a stick, blooming onions and Chinese fare. The fried apple pie stand sells dessert, thus complementing its neighbors, Larson said.
Minneapple Pie got into the fair on its first try, to the surprise of one its creators, George Atsidakos. "I had no idea it would happen this quickly," he said.
Atsidakos cooked up the pie idea at his family's restaurant, Minne's Diner in Rogers. The cafe is known for its apple pie. So, Atsidakos wondered, would a hand-held, deep-fried version still have a nice flaky crust, not a greasy coating?
His mother, the restaurant's pie arbiter, had serious doubts. But they went to work anyway, and after much tinkering came up with a product that Atsidakos started hawking at county fairs and art fairs. Landing a spot at Target Field this year was next, and then came the green light from the fair.
Sales have been better than expected, Atsidakos said, and the 33-year-old seems to have been bitten by the same fair bug that got Ribar.
But how to keep up the momentum? The fair's annual media horde usually jumps on new food offerings, and the more spectacular -- think deep-fried Twinkie on a stick -- the more the coverage. But in the end, a product has to have staying power, Ribar said.
"You can come up with anything new. But will it have legs after two or three years?"
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003