Want to see how the sausage gets made? Look inside the new Pronto Pup production center opening at the Minnesota State Fair this year.
Well, they don’t make the actual sausage there. The hot dogs in Pronto Pups are produced by a sausage factory in La Crosse, Wis., and delivered fresh to the fairgrounds.
But fairgoers can peer through windows surrounding the fair’s new production facility at 1315 Underwood St. (formerly the site of the Robbinsdale Order of the Eastern Star dining hall) and watch them churn out one of the fair’s top-selling foods. Over the fair’s 12 days, the plant mixes nearly 30,000 pounds of flour mix into Pronto Pup batter and skewers hundreds of thousands of hot dogs on wooden sticks.
Batter and meat are distributed separately to the fairgrounds’ eight Pronto Pup stands, including the “flagship” stand in front of the production plant. The final steps take place in the stands, also visible through windows. The dogs get dipped in the batter, then clipped to the “Ferris wheel,” a spoke-covered rotating device that dunks each in the deep-fryer for two minutes and 15 seconds.
“That way they’re all the same, whether you get your Pronto Pup by the Fine Arts Building or by Ye Olde Mill,” said Gregg Karnis, whose family has sold Pronto Pups at the fair since introducing the concession in 1947.
Karnis bought and renovated the building this summer, happy to show off the production of what over the years has been promoted as “Banquet on a Stick,” “Wiener Dun in a Bun” and “America’s Original Corndog.” The extra attention helps reinforce Pronto Pups’ status as a State Fair icon — at a time when fairgoers’ eating habits are showing signs of shifting.
Pronto Pup origins
Fairgoers tend to think of Pronto Pups and corndogs as different and opposing products. Wheat flour tops the ingredients in Pronto Pup batter, which also contains less sugar than most corndogs, Karnis said. “And there’s a secret ingredient!” It’s milk, he revealed 20 seconds later.
But corn meal and corn flour are Pronto Pups’ second- and third-biggest ingredients. A Pronto Pup is a type of corndog the way cola is a type of pop.
The corndog’s early history is hazy. Cooks are said to have wrapped sausages in batter as early as the late 19th century. Texans dabbled with corndogs, probably stickless, in the early 20th.
But the origin story of Pronto Pups, the product that launched the corndog’s national popularity, is clearer. In the early 1940s, a hot dog vendor in Rockaway Beach, Ore., frustrated when wet weather ruined a batch of buns, had an idea.
The new product — so named because the dogs, “pups,” could be served “pronto” — was an instant hit. By the mid-1940s, Pronto Pup franchises spread across the country. Among them was a restaurant in downtown Chicago opened by Gregg Karnis’ parents, Jack and Gladys.
Gregg still recounts the family legend with lively enthusiasm. A Twin Cities businessman named William Brede visited Chicago and spotted a huge line outside the Karnis eatery. Figuring anything that popular was worth investigating, Brede joined the line. He was so impressed with Pronto Pups that he obtained a license to sell them at the Minnesota State Fair and asked Jack Karnis to run the operation. Karnis initially declined, satisfied with the income the Chicago outlet was pulling in: $33,000 a year, nearly $400,000 in today’s dollars. Brede offered to pay the elder Karnis that much in salary plus a percentage of the fairground sales. They had a deal.
That first year, fairgoers bought more than 100,000 Pronto Pups, launching the era of foods on sticks. The 25 millionth was sold 70 years later, prompting the State Legislature to pass a resolution celebrating Pronto Pups’ contribution to “The Great Minnesota Get Together’s cuisine and culture.”
Future of fair fare
Since any fairgoer younger than 72 grew up with corndogs, they might seem as ancient as the fair itself. But fair cuisine has changed dramatically throughout the Pronto Pup’s history.
In the early 20th century, fair food meant sandwiches carted in on wagons. When church dining halls began serving square meals on plates — Swedish meatballs, gravy-slathered sandwiches, homemade pie — they were a hit. By the 1930s and ’40s there were some 50 dining halls. Today there are two.
Stick foods boomed in the decades after World War II. Besides the taste, people liked the stick’s portability. They could wander around looking at things while eating.
For decades, sticks played a central role in the concessions, even the culinary identity, of the fair. Vendors vied to invent stick-impaled foods that were either surprising, like macaroni and cheese, or outrageously unhealthy, like deep-fried candy bars.
Sticks peaked sometime around the turn of the 21st century, said Dennis Larson, who licenses all of the fair’s vendors. In 2010, eight new foods were on sticks. Last year there were three, including two new flavors of corndog.
Sticks are all but absent among new foods this year. (Nordic Waffles’ “Slammin Salmon on a Stick” has one for some reason, but Nordic’s six other waffle wraps don’t.) And fewer items are deep-fried, Larson said. “We’re trying to get away from the fried-food freak show.”
Pronto Pups and other corndogs reigned second among the State Fair’s top-selling foods last year with $2.6 million in sales, below Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies’ $4.3 million. (Karnis argues that corndogs, being lower-priced, sell more servings.)
All of the 10 top-selling foods are familiar fair fare: ice cream, French fries, cheese curds, mini-donuts and the like. Together they represented a comfortable 44 percent of last year’s $39 million in food sales.
Still, fair crowds have changed. They’re more likely to live in cities with fancy restaurants. They include millennials. They’re interested in novel, sophisticated dishes that sound healthy. This year’s new foods include tuna poke and shrimp ceviche. Some are deep-fried items, but one of those is cauliflower — nutritious, vegan-friendly, gluten-free, served with organic sesame sauce.
Not all of the new foods would earn a standing ovation at a Weight Watchers meeting. But fairgoers have become interested in fresh and artisanal fare, Larson said.
“It’s not stuffy gourmet, but in some cases it’s healthy.”
Healthy eating at the State Fair? Karnis scoffs at the notion, citing the fair’s longstanding check-your-diet-at-the-door protocol. “It’s the one day a year you can let your hair down.”
Sure, people want to sample unusual new delicacies. But they save room for their perennial favorites, Karnis said.
Larson agreed. Millennials like his own 26-year-old son are likely to eat a Pronto Pup but also sip a kombucha. Most fairgoers, he said, “buy their classic favorite food first and then check out the new offerings to see if anything entices them.”