Q What started your cookie career?
A We had a frozen yogurt shop in downtown Minneapolis. Business was good during the day, not at night, so we wanted to get a booth at the fair. We had seen frozen yogurt served with Famous Amos, the first gourmet cookie, so we applied to sell yogurt and cookies. Three weeks before the fair, they called. A booth was open. But the fair already had a frozen yogurt stand. They wanted cookies.
Q Is your home kitchen where you came up with your famous recipe?
A I worked on it here. I have three partners: my husband, Gary; Neil O'Leary and his wife, Brenda. While the boys were building the booth, we were testing chocolate chip cookies. My dad knew a chef at the vo-tech, and he helped me multiply the recipe to bigger quantities. There's a science to it; you can't just do a recipe times 1,000. Today's recipe is basically the same one we started out with.
Q How did you get the name Sweet Martha?
A My brother Ray. My husband said it [the business] should be named after a person, and my brother came up with Sweet Martha. I said, "I don't want to be Sweet Martha -- that means I have to be sweet." I was in my 20s then.
Q What's your daily routine like during the State Fair?
A Luckily I live right by the fair. I get there by quarter to 7 in the morning and stay until 7 p.m., on weekends a little later. When I was younger, I'd stay until 9 or 10 p.m.
Brenda runs the grandstand booth, and I run the main booth. My husband and Neil are the night guys. All my managers, either I baby-sat for them or my high-school girlfriends did. A lot [of the staff] are the children of my friends. That's what makes it so much fun.
Q How do you relax when the fair is over?
A I keep going for two weeks after, doing cleaning, payroll, purchasing for next year while it's fresh in my mind. Normally then, I go right back into teaching, but this will be my first year off. I know in September it's going to hit me. It's going to be strange.
Q What do you hope to do when you get some downtime?
A I love to read -- and not fall asleep after the first paragraph! I love to garden. And I'm looking forward to spending more time with family.
Q Not counting your cookies, what's your favorite fair food?
A The Epiphany [Country Diner] and the fruit [booth] next door. I eat really good meals during the fair, to make sure I'm charged up all the time. When I'm on the run, I love those Pronto Pups. And my new thing -- I'm Italian -- is the new gelato booth across the street.
Q Did you have any baking fiascoes during those early years at the fair?
A When we first started out, we didn't know what we were doing at all. We rented equipment, including a big mixer. The guy who rented to us said, "Here's a contraption for mixing the dough." It broke. The service people at the fair welded it back together. But it kept breaking. Well, it was a wire whip, meant to mix [salad] dressing! We finally ended up getting a paddle mixer.
Q Have you tried to put cookies on a stick?
A Of course we tried. But we could see it wasn't going to work. They're too soft to mass-produce on sticks. We're lucky to get 'em in a cone.
Q You and your husband are partners in business and on the home front. What's your division of labor?
A I'm more the day-to-day business person, he does the marketing. At home, we're all in there together. I'm the cleaner; he's the griller.
Q How would you describe your decorating style?
A I try to be funky traditional. I have a real good friend, Jane Delaney, who's a decorator. She'll come in and help me. Even when I think it looks OK, she puts a little tweak on it. I love to design, but I do the architectural part, like planning the layout and where the windows should go. She's super with fabric and color. I'll say to her, 'What color do you want here?' Then my husband will say, 'I don't know if I like that color.' I'll say, 'Jane likes it.' And a few days later, we'll agree that she was absolutely right.
Q What furniture has been with you the longest?
A That [dining-room] table. We got it with the house 30 years ago for $90. It's black walnut. I've had it refinished.
Q What's your most prized possession?
A These [a pair of tiny, hand-painted ceramic vases]. My grandparents got them in Florence, on their honeymoon, in about 1910. My grandma picked them out. And these portraits of my parents and my husband's parents. I'm into family history and family trees.
Q What puts Sweet Martha in a sour mood?
A I'm going to have to think about that ... I'm sort of even keel, I guess. I try to keep everything in stride ... I'll call ya' if I come up with something.
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784