Ok, a little full disclosure: I am a vendor at the Minnesota State Fair. I have been for my entire adult life.
I own two food stands--Real S’Mores and World’s Greatest French Fries.
Neither is an exaggeration.
I know from experience the Great Minnesota Get Together is a microcosm of the national economy.
Even though the Fair is a highly regulated marketplace, food vendors must still practice the fundamental principle of business—selling a quality product at a reasonable price--along with strict observance of the 3 immutable laws of real estate—location, location, location.
The Wild West days of petty graft and nepotism that could occasionally be found when the Fair had trouble finding enough exhibitors and vendors, has been gone for decades. Today, the operations of the Fair are professional and squeaky clean.
The State Fair shifted deftly with the national economy of the 1940’s and 50’s, morphing from a “Food Production” exposition to a “Food Consumption” spectacle. Like the state’s diversification from farming to manufacturing, mining, tourism and technology, the Fair graduated from feeds, fertilizers and farm implements, to a free-for-all for foodies.
The ludicrous diversity of ingenious food products, which today features 300 offerings appealing to every pallet, reflects the changing face of the America outside the Fair’s gates.
At one point the event had 30 Foot Long Hot Dog stands and 35 Pronto Pup outlets dotting the landscape. Today, the Fairgrounds are loaded with premium quality fare and the former ubiquitous presence of low-grade products commands but a trifle of today's food dollar.
The prices reflect the economy, too. They’ve gone way up, but so has the cost of goods and labor, along with avaricious rental rates captured by the Fair itself, in many cases a third or more of a food stand’s net profits.
I grew up watching the rich get obscenely richer in America. In my professional lifetime I’ve witnessed top executive salaries go from a couple hundred thousand to tens of millions for the same job.
It has happened at the Fair, too.
What used to be an upper tier of 30 or 40 businesses that exceeded $100,000 in sales, has catapulted into a Gates/Buffet-category of mega-food elites, which gross from $600,000 to $2.4 million in 12 days.
A few others have sales ranging from $350, 000 to $600,000, while a healthy bourgeois class has more pedestrian expectations of retail establishments that are open all of 150 hours per year.
Many, if not most, of the Fair’s food stands turn modest profits, sufficient to afford a nice vacation and maybe a snowmobile, but not retirement in paradise.
The work lives of Minnesota State Fair business owners aligns with the evolving economy, which by some estimates, projects that nearly half of all workers will soon be working on their own as consultants, small business owners and entrepreneurs.
And why not?
Major corporations are getting along fine without hiring at the same levels as during the pre-crash years, even though thousands of them are sitting on boatloads of cash. With the elimination of employer-provided pensions, dwindling respect for seniority and anemic employee health benefits, workers will pretty much be on their own anyway.
On this point it is the national economy that will more closely reflect the State Fair’s.
Tomorrow’s professionals will be more like the early State Fair entrepreneurs who invented distinctly Minnesota products like Tom Thumb donuts, Cheese Curds and Pronto Pups, and let the market determine their fate.
They will more often be flying without a net, making their way through the unknowns of an economy with a workforce as rootless as the Midway carnies that will pull up stakes in a few days and wander off to the next venue.