Another State Fair icon bites the dust

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 18, 2011 - 11:26 AM

Edged out by corn dogs and chocolate-dipped bacon, one of the few remaining church dining halls at the fairgrounds is calling it quits.

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State Fair crowds have been dwindling over the years at the Epiphany Diner as anything-on-a-stick grabbed all the buzz. This photo was taken in 1991.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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File this one under E, for End-of-an-Era. Or at least the beginning of the end.

When the State Fair opens for its 148th year next Thursday, it's going to be the last season for the Epiphany Diner. The landmark dining hall, operated by the Church of the Epiphany in Coon Rapids and one of the fair's three remaining church-run operations, is closing up shop after this year's fair. Its space will be used for tasting Minnesota wines.

"It's been a tough decision, and we hate to see it go," said the Rev. Dennis Zehren.

The main reason for the closure is simple: declining revenues. According to figures released by the State Fair, the dining hall had gross sales of $156,851 in 2009. Last year they were $137,456.

That fall in revenues is likely tied to changing tastes. Fairgoers aren't supporting the traditional cafeteria-style dining halls and their three-square-meals menus the way they once did. At one point, the fair boasted nearly 20 church-sponsored halls, but this year only Salem Lutheran Church, Hamline United Methodist Church and Epiphany remain. St. Bernard's dining hall closed in 2009 and was replaced by O'Gara's at the Fair, an upscale beer hall.

Then there's the all-important buzz, or the lack thereof. On fairgrounds riddled with hundreds of food vendors, when is the last time a church diner featured the kind of gotta-taste item -- along the lines of chocolate-dipped bacon, or deep-fried candy bars on a stick -- that grabs the attention of fickle fairgoers and lights up cash registers?

Zehren also said expenses at the Epiphany are on the rise. The building, which the church owns (the fair holds title to the land), underwent a $30,000 facelift a few years ago, but still demands significant investment, including a new dishwasher, oven and deep-fryer, along with replacement work on the roof. "We were looking at spending the next five or six year's profit" just to maintain the building, said Zehren.

And staffing has become an issue. Epiphany's Coon Rapids parish is one of the state's largest, with nearly 4,700 families. But the all-volunteer fairgrounds operation requires manpower to the tune of 70 workers each day, requiring that the church fill more than 800 positions over the course of the 12-day event.

"That's asking a lot," said Zehren. "We have some people who just love it, and would be there every day if they could. But it's hard work, and a big commitment. It's a long time for our seniors to be on their feet."

The site, on Underwood Street near Carnes Avenue, won't stay empty for long. Minnesota Wine at the Fair, a division of the Minnesota Farm Winery Association, is purchasing the building. The plan, starting with the 2012 fair, is to use the space to showcase the products from member wineries and offer food pairings, as well. The association has had a venue in the nearby Agriculture/Horticulture Building for three years.

"We are obviously Minnesota chauvinists, so we're going to try to feature as many local-produced foods as we can," said association President Paul Quast. "The idea is to expand the food offerings at the fair. We won't be competing with the French fry stand, or the corn dog stand."

Although a wine bar is more in keeping with the times, many will likely miss the old-fashioned diner. The church and the fair share a long history, dating back to 1966. "Before that, St. Joseph's parish in West St. Paul had it, and before that another parish had it," said Zehren. "It has been a Catholic dining hall for a good long time."

It's a comfort to know that fairgoers can rely upon the Epiphany one last time for a shaded table, a kid- and senior-friendly atmosphere, a souvenir church cookbook and an affordable hot turkey, chicken or roast beef dinner, before saying their goodbyes.

"I think that it's going to be emotional," Zehren said. "Lots of tears and hugging and toasting and raising our eyes to heaven. But we're going to go out on a positive note, expressing our gratitude and reliving happy memories."

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