On an afternoon last August, when the heat index pushed past 100 degrees, Pam Simon walked around the quieter-than-usual streets of the Minnesota State Fair feeling sorry for the businesspeople sweltering in their booths and peddling their wares to relatively sparse crowds.
Simon, the fair’s concession and exhibit manager, stopped to chat with a vendor. She confessed her worries that the heat was keeping business down — but the unfazed vendor told Simon to cheer up.
“Look at all these people,” he said. “I’ve never seen such happy people enjoying themselves!”
The moral of the story? Even in blistering heat, Minnesotans love their fair. And indeed, when the heat let up in the fair’s final days, attendance broke two daily records.
“The loyalty from our guests is unbelievable,” Simon said.
That sense of connection that Minnesotans have to their annual end-of-summer festival is what inspired Simon to launch the People’s Choice Awards two years ago.
The fair had long presented awards to exhibitors and vendors, but for years the winners were chosen by fair staffers. Simon wanted to make the awards even more meaningful.
“I really want the people of Minnesota to choose these people,” Simon said. “It’s the people’s fair, not ours. We’re just here to help put it on.”
So starting when the fair opens Thursday and continuing through Aug. 25, ballots will be available in information booths throughout the fairgrounds (next to bright blue ballot boxes), Fairgoers can nominate their favorite fair experiences in five categories: best product or service, best food or beverage, best attraction, best value, and best customer service. Winners will receive their awards on Aug. 28.
The list of winners from the past two years is like a microcosm of the fair itself: a mix of tradition and novelty. They range from beloved fair institutions (the Giant Slide, All You Can Drink Milk, the Hamline Church Dining Hall) to newer innovations (Sole Shine Henna Art’s henna tattoos, Carl’s Gizmo Sandwiches, ZRS Fossils and Gifts, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Eco Experience).
Here are their stories.
Henna Art by Sole Shine
Women around the world celebrate special occasions by getting intricately patterned henna tattoos, and Minnesota is no different. Here, they do it to celebrate the special occasion known as the State Fair.
As the owner of Henna Art by Sole Shine, Deena Drewes has been providing henna tattoos for about 15 years, at juried art shows and other events as well as at the fair.
Henna is a plant-based dye with a “rich history of use in ceremony and rituals,” Drewes said. When first applied it’s orange, then darkens to a subtle auburn. (Drewes warns against places that use “black henna,” which she said contains a chemical dye rather than natural henna and could be toxic.) The design remains on the skin, on average, for about two weeks.
The Oakdale-based Drewes got into the business after stumbling across a book with a cover picture of a woman’s hand adorned with a design resembling the images she likes to doodle on paper. The book came with a kit; she took it home and practiced and decided to offer the service at a small art fair. It was an immediate success. “My booth was like a bee hive. From that moment on I realized I’ve got something good here.”
The business grew from there. When she found out that the State Fair did not have a henna-art booth, she applied and was offered a spot in a part of the fair for teenagers.
“Teenage girls have been paying my mortgage for 15 years,” Drewes said. “I love every single one of them.”
And vice versa. Teens flock to the her booths (she now has two on the fairgrounds) for more than just the body art, Drewes said. “We’re like therapists, we’re like hairstylists, people pour out their hearts to us. Being able to touch the lives of so many people and give them something that looks beautiful and they see themselves as looking beautiful now — that’s the kind of stuff that really fulfills me.”
Carl's Gizmo Sandwiches
Though popular in Iowa, loose-meat sandwiches — made of ground beef but not molded into a patty, more like a sauceless sloppy Joe — have never built a big fan base in Minnesota. But the success of Carl’s Gizmo Sandwiches suggests they’re poised for a breakout.
Carl Cardamon began selling loose-meat sandwiches at the Iowa State Fair right after World War II. One day in the late ‘70s, Cardamon was struck with an inspiration. He mixed Italian sausage with the ground beef, added special sauce and mozzarella cheese, put it on a toasted Italian roll and called it the Gizmo. It was a hit at the Iowa fair, but didn’t make its debut at the Minnesota State Fair until Cardamon’s daughter, Carla Wood, opened a stand in the early 2000s.
Business was slow at first. People seemed confused by the deviation from the patty format. So Wood handed out Gizmo samples to radio and TV broadcasters — including celebrity foodie Andrew Zimmern — who helped promote the concoction. “It was by word of mouth that people started liking it,” recalled Wood, who is also a clerk in the Iowa Legislature. “We have some really loyal customers up there, and quite the following.
“I think the most I’ve sold is 17 Gizmos at once. People will bring a box in and just tell me to load it up.
The Giant Slide
In 1967, Fred Pittroff had spent more than a decade working at fairs around California, selling food on sticks and the like, when he invented the structure that would become a beloved tradition at fairs across the country, including Minnesota’s.
Inspired by a large slide built by the father-in-law of a friend, Pittroff built a bigger one and set it up at a couple of fairs in California. They were such a hit he built 42 of them, installing them at fairs all around the United States, Canada and even Japan and Australia. Most he sold right away, but Pittroff operated 10 slides himself for a while. Now, at 76, he’s down to two, in Wisconsin and Minnesota — “the best-run fair in America, by far,” said Pittroff, who has worked at fairs since the early ’50s.
“The slide is the most popular ride at the fair at every fair in the country every year,” he said. “More people ride the slide than any other ride on the fairgrounds on all the fairs.”
Attracting some 200,000 a year, the slide is a bargain — at $2.50, “it’s the cheapest ride out there,” Pittroff said — and a tradition that gets passed down through generations. “I’m riding grandparents with grandkids now.”
Giggles' Campfire Grill
It was almost on a whim that restaurateur Tim Weiss decided to open a State Fair eatery 15 years ago. “If you’d have asked me 16 years ago if I’d ever be in the carnival or concession business I would have probably looked at you like you were nuts — only being politically correct about it,” said Weiss, owner of Giggles’ Campfire Grill.
With its log-cabin-style building and picnic tables, the restaurant has an Up North ambience. The food is made from scratch and has a Minnesota flavor, featuring an elk burger, smoked salmon on a stick and several forms of walleye — including this year’s new item, walleye macaroni and cheese.
Weiss had always heard that fair businesses made good money, but says that wasn’t his main motivation. For Weiss, who grew up a mile from the fairgrounds, a State Fair business was about honoring his roots. “Tell you what, I live and breathe the Minnesota State Fair,” said Weiss, who also operates Gabe’s by the Park in St. Paul and Gabe’s Rinkside Bar and Grill in Blaine. “I’m up there almost on a daily basis. It’s hard, grueling work, there’s no doubt about that. But it gets in your blood.”
Hamline Church Dining Hall
Church dining halls have been a tradition since the earliest days of the State Fair, but today the 117-year-old hall operated by St. Paul’s Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul is one of only two still in business.
“Every year when it ends, it’s kind of like, ‘Ooh, that was such hard work,’” said Jan Bajuniemi, treasurer of the church committee that operates the establishment. “Then you let a few months go by and people are saying, ‘Well, we have to start getting ready now.’”
The dining halls date back to a time when families and exhibitors working at the fair were hungry for something more substantial than novelties on sticks.
But the classic dining hall plays an important role in the modern fair, too, Bajuniemi said. Fair workers and exhibitors still put in long hard days and want to sit down to a square meal now and then. Also, the hall offers tables and chairs, so you’re “not just sitting down on a dusty curb to eat your pork chop.”
To keep things fresh, the mostly volunteer staff adds new menu items every year, including this year’s Izzy’s ice-cream flavor, Jell-O Salad (lime-flavored ice cream with cranberries and mini-marshmallows).
But don’t worry, lovers of the diner’s signature ham loaf. At the Hamline Church Dining Hall, that classic dish is as popular as meatballs or chicken and will probably hold a permanent place on the menu.
“There is a group of people that is steadfast in their love for ham loaf and come back every year, just anxious for the ham-loaf dinner,” Bajuniemi said. “It’s like any other food at the fair. Some people don’t go near it and other people love it.”
Mancini's Al Fresco
The restaurant that Nick Mancini and his father opened in 1948 in a former 3.2-beer joint grew into a large and popular St. Paul institution. Mancini’s Al Fresco, its State Fair counterpart, has become a popular institution, too, though it’s only a year old.
Pat Mancini, Nick’s son, who owns and operates Mancini’s with his brother, John, decided a 12-day fair gig would be a good business for late summer, when things get a little slower at the restaurant.
“I grew up going to the fair — there was some romance there, being a food vendor at the fair,” he said. “I have some children in their late 20s, and I was hoping to help establish something they could take into the future.”
Pat Mancini’s son Nick is the chef. His daughter and wife also work there. “We call it Mancini’s Family Affair,” he said.
Despite the “al fresco” in the name, the seating isn’t outdoors, but the interior’s sky-blue walls give it airy look. It serves more casual versions of the food at the restaurant: a steak sandwich, garlic toast, seasoned pork shanks, a bread cone with meat balls. And the staff works to provide the welcoming ambience that make the original Mancini’s so popular.
“It’s something my dad started,” Mancini said. “He was a firm believer that if your name is on the building, you’d better be there. You make sure your guests are comfortable, that they know who the owner is, that they feel a part of your place. It’s kind of our mission, customer-focused hospitality. Along with quality food and all of that.”
Turkey to Go Sandwich
If “turkey sandwich” isn’t the first food that comes to mind when you think about exotic State Fair delicacies, think again.
There’s something about the Turkey to Go Sandwich from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association that people obviously love. Exactly what that something is may forever remain a bit of a mystery. “A lot of turkey,” said Steve Olson, the association’s executive director, “and beyond that it’s a secret recipe, so I can’t tell you.”
Well, when pressed he’s willing to divulge a few more tiny details. The sandwich, launched about 15 years ago, is a juicy mix of marinated white and dark meat on a white bun. You can sprinkle a Cajun-flavored powder on it, or ask for it topped with bacon bits or cranberries and bleu cheese.
“It’s got a little bit of a kick to it, but it’s kind of a Minnesota kick,” Olson said.
“I think it has a unique taste profile, and it’s also a different way of serving turkey. That was our goal when we created it — to have a different product for people to taste.”
The Eco Experience
There are two kinds of fairgoers: Those who go to enjoy their traditional favorites, and those who seek out the new and different. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Eco Experience building tries to offer something for both.
For the former group, the Eco Experience offers its usual bounty of information about environmental protection, green technology, energy conservation and other ecological issues. There are talks and displays and demonstrations and free activities for kids.
For novelty seekers, there’s the world’s biggest wad of paper. That’s right — a 10-foot-tall ball of trash.
“It’s all to show what’s going on with recycling paper,” said Pamela McCurdy, the agency’s information officer. “Every year, Minnesotans throw away a billion pounds of paper that could be recycled. Think about how much mail and paper we still get. Cereal boxes, cardboard boxes from online retailers, even things like toilet paper rolls. It’s so shocking when you look at the numbers.”
Many companies rely on recycled paper, but because not enough people do the recycling, “they’re actually having to ship it from other states,” McCurdy said.
At press time, it wasn’t yet clear whether the paper wad would make the list of Guinness World Records, but that was the goal. They’ll also be displaying a love seat (yes, you can sit on it) made of paper.
“It’s a fun little endeavor,” McCurdy said. “Sometimes you have to be impactful to get people to think about things.”
The Midwest Dairy Association's All-You-Can-Drink Milk Stand
Amid a sea of new and exotic foods, fairgoers have been lining up for nearly 60 years at the Midwest Dairy Association’s All-You-Can-Drink Milk Stand to enjoy something they probably have in their own refrigerators.
But there’s something about that milk — stored in 300-gallon totes, cooled to 38 degrees or less and carried through 200 feet of stainless-steel pipe into the 12-ounce cups served by dairy-farm families and other dairy-industry supporters — that just tastes more delicious than the stuff at home.
“People tell us that it’s different,” said Sherry Newell, the Dairy Association’s senior communications manager.
Logically, it shouldn’t be. Oh, it may be kept a little colder than your fridge keeps it. It’s 2 percent, so for those accustomed to skim “perhaps they’re enjoying that little bit of fuller taste.” Or maybe it’s that you watch it flow into the glass, looking frothy and appetizing.
“We just think it’s partly the fair atmosphere,” Newell said.
In any case, at $1 for all you can drink, she considers it the fair’s best bargain.
Last year the stand served more than 26,000 gallons of milk, not quite half of them chocolate. When the stand began offering chocolate milk a few years back, some observers predicted it would be more popular. But white always outsells chocolate, a fact Newell attributes to the popularity of the classic version among true milk enthusiasts.
“I think milk lovers love to enjoy white milk as a great drink, even with exotic foods,” she said. “Our dairy farmers are just tickled pink to be able to provide that bargain and know that people walk away loving milk again, even if they didn’t yesterday or last year.”
ZRS Fossils and Gifts
Stones, fossils, precious minerals, meteorites, petrified wood, stonecutting and other lapidary skills, jewelry making, healing with crystals … the folks at ZRS Fossils and Gifts are involved with just about everything rock-related.
“At the fair, we absolutely love the opportunity to connect with people from around the tri-state area and promote natural sciences and the kind of material we have in the shop,” said Kelly Lund, who owns ZRS Fossils and Gifts at 3018 Lyndale Ave. in Minneapolis as well as the State Fair stand of the same name, now in its eighth year.
Lund and her partner, paleontologist John McArdle, also lead fossil- and mineral-hunting expeditions around the country and the world.
Business at the fair has grown every year, Lund said, perhaps because these days people “really seem to have a hunger for minerals” and other natural items.
“Probably the majority of our customers are repeat customers for our jewelry because it is so nature-oriented and unique,” she said. “There just aren’t that many places to find really quality, interesting and exciting fossils and minerals in the area.”
Katy Read • 612-673-4583