By Rick Nelson
Legions of fairgoers might not be familiar with Lynn Gordon, owner of the French Meadow Bakery & Cafe in Minneapolis, they way they may feel they know Martha Rossini Olson of Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar, but that hasn't prevented them from starting their fairgrounds days at the bakery's hugely popular booth. That operation got a major upgrade in 2009, moving from a cramped berth in the Food Building into roomy new digs in the former home of Schumacher’s on Carnes Av. While Gordon is no longer directly involved in the Meadow’s fair operation — it’s now in the hands of her daughter and son-in-law, Debbie Gordon Gleize and Chris Gleize — she acts as its spokesperson.
Q: Everyone has at least one fair story. What’s yours?
A: The night before we were getting ready to open for the very first time, we completely changed course based on something the night custodian at the Food Building said to me. He asked me what we were selling and how we would be serving it. I was so proud, I told him it was scones with butter and strawberry jam and he said, “Oh, that doesn’t sound very good.” Keep in mind, I’m last-minute Lil, we still weren’t done getting the stand set up. So I asked, “Why do you say that?” And he said, “Here’s what sells here: Salt, sugar and grease, and you don’t have any of that” [laughs]. I gave him a scone to taste and he said something like, “No, this isn’t going to work,” and then suggested we try selling Toaster Streudel from Pillsbury. “They’d be a lot better,” he said. Honest to god, that’s what he said, to me, Miss Organic. Now I do listen to what people tell me, because I’ve been around for a long time. So I called Steve [Shapiro, Gordon’s business associate] and said, “We need some sweet cream-cheese frosting, and let’s get some fresh strawberries and not use the jam.” We were up all night, changing course. Last year Debbie introduced a scone with butter and jam. It’s for purists. It’s not a best-seller [laughs].
Q: How long has the French Meadow had a presence at the fair?
A: I’m bad about time, but it’s been at least 12 years, maybe 15 years. My daughter and son-in-law have been doing it for at least five years. I’ll always remember that first year. I wasn’t ready and I didn’t know what I was doing.
Q: How did the French Meadow get into the fair? From what I understand, it's no easy feat.
A: It was my ex-husband Phil. He thought our scone was a good product and would be perfect for the fair. He made the presentation to the fair people on my behalf. I just didn’t have the time, the bread business is a hard business [laughs]. We got the call saying we were in, and so many people asked, “How did you do it? Who did you sleep with to get in?” [laughs]. Turns out that absolutely everyone tries to get into the fair, I didn’t know that. You get in, it’s like winning the lottery. It was all Phil, so kudos to him.
Q: Running a fairgrounds stand can't be easy. What's an obstacle?
A: The tough thing about the fair is that nothing can go wrong. You get a lot more slack when you have a cafe, because it’s open 365 days a year. But the fair is only open for 12 days, so you have to get a lot done during that short period of time. Everyone works so hard at the fair, you work night and day for 12 days straight. For those 12 days, this team comes together.
Q: Do you have a lot of turnover, or do your workers return year after year?
A: Many of our people have worked with us for years, since the beginning, they’re like quote-unquote family. Like the Bachmans. We love the Bachmans. They are the most polite, the most hard-working people. Jean Bachman is 85 or 86, she comes in and bakes scones. You should come in and see her, she’s just adorable. She drives in from her farm, she stays with [her daughter] Lucy during the run of the fair and they come in together. Lucy is probably 60 and she looks like she’s 40. And Jean’s granddaughter is now working in the coffee bar, looking just as cute as she can be.
Opening day of the French Meadow's shiny new facility at the Minnesota State Fair.
Q: I heard that the Schumacher’s building became available rather late in the game. True?
A: It was a rush. Debbie and Chris had no idea it was available. I don’t know if others were asked or invited to buy the building, but I know that Debbie and Chris decided to make that commitment to the fair. That’s what happens, it becomes a part of your life, and you dedicate yourself to it, no matter where you’re living for the rest of the year. Come fair time, you find yourself here. The building got a total renovation, although that wasn’t the intention. It’s like when you paint a room and it makes the rest of your house look horrible, and you end up doing the whole thing.
Q: Did I overhear someone saying that the fabulous new Rueben pretzel is a tribute to John Schumacher?
A: That was my idea. I just love John, and I love his food. All these years at the fair, I’d always make a point to go the walleye stand and eat the walleye, and I’d always go to John’s and order the Rueben. I think it’s so appropriate that this building went from Schumacher’s to the French Meadow. Neither one of us are booths that travel around the country, going from fair to fair, and we’re not businesses that are designed to sell products once a year at the fair. No, Schumacher’s and the French Meadow are both longstanding Minnesota businesses. When Debbie and I were collaborating on the pretzels, I said, “We have to do a Rueben for John.” Ruebens are not something we do at the French Meadow, we don’t do corned beef [laughs]. But for John, we do corned beef.