Competition is the king of the fair. Everything from pigs to pumpkins, fine art to seed art and supersized sows contend for the blue ribbon.
There’s another rivalry that’s been playing out at the fair for decades: Pronto Pup vs. corn dog.
Most fairgoers have a favorite. There are those who swear by the Pronto Pup, saying it’s crispier. Others will eat only a corn dog, claiming it’s sweeter, and maybe even bigger.
In the middle are people such as Bill Marty of Forest Lake, who asked, “What’s the difference?”
The difference, said Gregg Karnis, owner of the Minnesota Pronto Pup franchise, is in the ingredients.
Yes, there’s cornmeal in the crust, making it a legitimate corn dog. But there’s also corn flour, as well as wheat and rice flours, which give it a more grain-forward taste. There’s only a dash of sugar, unlike the sweeter corn dog crusts. And the sausages inside the savory breading are blended fresh in Wisconsin.
“It’s got a more adult flavor,” Karnis said. “At the corn dog stand, you see parents ordering corn dogs and then handing them to their kids. Then the parents come and get a Pronto Pup.”
Pronto Pup also has something else going for it: It claims to be the original corn dog at the Minnesota State Fair, debuting in 1947.
And even more important, it was the first food on a stick to grace the fair. Today there are more than 100 purveyors of skewered food.
Pronto Pup was also a pioneer in marketing: It was the first to put flashing lights atop its booths to draw in customers. And it worked.
Although there are at least eight other competitors selling corn dogs at the fair, the eight Pronto Pup stands account for about 55 percent of hot dogs sold each year, Karnis said. They sell about 34 tons of hot dogs each fair. Last year, they handed out their 25 millionth dog on a stick.
Still, not everyone’s sold on the “Wiener dun in a bun.”
“I just don’t get the Pronto Pup,” said Courtney Cuff of Chanhassen. “I’m a corn dog person.”
Tamara Bishop, who hails from St. Louis, said, “I’ve never heard of a Pronto Pup.”
Then there are those who don’t discriminate, such as Zak Olson of Savage, who enjoyed both dogs on the fair’s opening day. Why? “I like both,” he said.
Which came first?
Though the sellers of Pronto Pups claim their product represents the nation’s first corn dog, that distinction is contested. It seems there were other vendors coming up with a batter-fried hot dog in the early 1940s, including one at the Texas State Fair as early as 1938. Others showed up in California and Illinois
The Pronto Pup story dates back to 1944, when Chicagoan Jack Karnis and his wife, Gladys, visited Portland, Ore. There, they tried an innovative new treat: a hot dog on a stick, dipped in batter and deep-fried. It was called a Pronto Pup.
Karnis was so struck by the newfangled concession that he decided to bring a franchise back with him to Chicago. It was the first corn dog stand to open east of the Rockies, say his descendants.
“It started catching on fire,” said Gregg Karnis, Jack’s son. “Who in the world would put a stick in a hot dog and dip it in batter and deep-fry it? The thing is it didn’t matter, because everybody loved the taste.”
At one point, there were Pronto Pup franchises in 33 states. But no state ever had an operation as big as what was to come in Minnesota.
Not long after Karnis introduced the Pronto Pup to Chicago, William Brede, a Twin Cities businessman who was in town for a meeting, tried his very first one. He proposed that Karnis bring the Pronto Pup to the Minnesota State Fair. They landed there in 1947 and never left.
Gregg Karnis started working for his parents at age 12, traveling to the Twin Cities every summer with his family. Gregg eventually moved to Minnesota and took over the operation at the fair.
Each summer was like a family reunion, he said, with his parents, siblings and extended family members returning to make one of the fair’s most beloved concessions.
A taste of history
The elements of Pronto Pups are assembled in a rickety building off an unnamed alley on the fairgrounds, tucked behind a grocery store that serves mainly 4-H kids. Yellow bags of their unique flour mix are piled high at the entrance. It’s here that the dogs are skewered by machine and the batter is blended by teens working their last summer job of the year. Whenever a stand needs a refill, the teens wheel carts full of prepped ingredients to the mustard-yellow shacks peppered across the fairgrounds.
Jack Karnis invented a wheel that the coated dogs attach to before spinning through the bubbling hot oil, to make sure each item gets cooked to the same golden brown. Gregg Karnis invented a spearing contraption that can put a stick in up to 50 dogs at a time.
Other than those mechanical innovations, “we haven’t changed a thing in 71 years,” Gregg Karnis said.
In 1992, though, there was one major change. Shortly before the fair opened, Jack Karnis was killed in a car accident. The family had to power through that time to make sure they could still meet their fair obligations.
But Gregg Karnis saw the outpouring of memories for his father, through obituaries that ran in the local newspapers and on the radio.
“It was the first time I realized the impact my father had on the whole complexion of the State Fair,” he said. “Maybe he brought up more than a hot dog.”
On opening day of this year’s fair, lines at Pronto Pups’ competitors, including Big Dog Corndogs and Poncho Dogs, were going strong. But devotees of the Pronto Pup couldn’t help but share their passion for what they say is a State Fair icon.
Tom Riley of St. Paul is certain the Pronto Pup is the real winner.
“It’s got more history here,” he said, “so it tastes better.”