The Turkey to Go sandwich that's gained a loyal following at the Minnesota State Fair for 52 years is coming downtown.
On Tuesday, owners Drew Levin and Dan Perkins opened in the skyway food court in the Alliance Bank Center in downtown St. Paul. A second "fast-casual" eatery is slated to open in Minneapolis in early January.
The storefronts represent the first bricks-and-mortar venues for the iconic Turkey to Go concept that the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association launched at the State Fair in 1959.
Last year, the college-dropouts-turned-entrepreneurs introduced the brand to Nicollet Mall in the form of a food truck. They followed up this April by selling turkey sandwiches during Twins games at Target Field. Now they are taking a seat at the table in the highly competitive industry that's littered with risks, expenses and culinary casualties.
Levin, 28, isn't fazed.
"We moved into this turkey business because we fell in love with the sandwich that was at the Minnesota State Fair," he said. "We approached the Turkey Growers Association because we really saw an opportunity to grow this brand beyond the State Fair and ultimately into fast-casual dining."
The route from State Fair to food trucks to restaurants is unusual, said Dennis Larson, who oversees food concession licenses for the Minnesota State Fair. As far as he knows, none of the fair's 240 food licensees has done what Levin and Perkins are trying to accomplish.
"It's more common for O'Gara's Restaurant or Axel's Bonfire in St. Paul to build a booth at the fair" to rustle up additional sales, Larson said. "Most fair food does not work well outside" the fairgrounds.
Bob Goldin, executive vice president of the Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc., agreed. Established restaurants typically set up a stand to sell their most popular menu item at the hometown fair.
"Usually it's roasted corn, fried Twinkies or something else that is usually too narrow to go in the other direction," Goldin said. "The items may be real popular, but no one is going to start a fried Twinkie restaurant."
Still, Turkey to Go restaurants may have a shot. "The good news is they have a local following and it's not something you eat once a year," he said. The bad news is that there is lots of competition for turkey sandwiches. Still, "these guys sound like they are pretty smart managing their capital, and they are probably having a lot of fun."
On Tuesday, about 60 people shuffled up to the counter in St. Paul and nabbed slow-roasted turkey salads, sandwiches and pita bread pockets stuffed with turkey, salami, jalapenos, olives, pepper and mozzarella. The new food court digs, which required about $5,000 to spruce up, drew a steady stream of patrons again Wednesday, despite a problem with the credit card machine that kept several customers waiting.
"We're ironing out all the kinks so when we open in Minneapolis, we are just ready to go," Levin said.
Some customers recognized the brand from the fair and welcomed it to their lunchtime food court. Others complained about the absence of the classic Turkey to Go drumstick that's sold at the State Fair. For now, the drumstick is not part of the restaurant menu, but it is sold in the food truck, Levin said.
Entrepreneurs at heart
In 2004, Levin and Perkins, both 28, dropped out of the college to pursue their fortunes in real estate. By 2009, they decided to invest proceeds from Minneapolis rental property into marketing the Turkey to Go sandwich. They talked turkey with the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and that year began operating the State Fair booth, which the association owns.
Larson credits the duo for pumping up fair sales by changing the Growers Association's deep-fried turkey recipe into a roasting process. That change simplified and speeded up preparation in a tight, garage-sized space.
"They turned out as good a product but made it more productive and functional," Larson said. By 2011, the booth was among the fair's top five bestselling concessions, he said.
"We just figured out some ideas on how to operate the booth more efficiently to get people through the line faster," Levin explained.
They were on the right track. By July 2010, the entrepreneurs were knee-deep in their next venture -- a $50,000 Turkey to Go food truck that parks during lunchtime at the U.S. Bank headquarters in downtown Minneapolis.
When the State Fair started a few weeks later, Levin and Perkins hired several homeless men around Nicollet Mall to pass out fliers saying their truck would be back on the mall as soon as the State Fair ended.
They paid the men in sandwiches.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725