A giant cookie with a mechanical eye winks at a crowd of a couple hundred people whose patience is being tested.
Lines for Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar spread from one side of Carnes Avenue to the other, patrons inching closer to the unmistakable aroma of flour and shortening and chocolate all melding together inside a palace of ovens.
Behind the glass at the front of the booth, customers are eyeing the silver trays of sweet treats, while yellow-shirted servers, some of whom have been earning their summer spending money here for decades, scoop up the warm petite chocolate chip cookies with a metal hand shovel and skillfully slide them into a plastic pail or paper cone.
The trays quickly empty, and a staffer brings over another, fresh out of the oven, at the simple request of “Cookies, please.”
For many visitors to the State Fair, buying a pail of cookies from Sweet Martha’s is a quintessential Minnesota tradition.
But for a lucky group of workers, there couldn’t be anything better than the 12 days spent filling those pails.
Most of them are friends of Martha Rossini Olson, the stand’s namesake, who founded the business in 1979 with husband Gary and friends Neil and Brenda O’Leary. It is Martha, a former elementary school teacher, who is most closely associated with the sweet goodness radiating from two booths at the fair.
Most of the staff is related to her or baby-sat her children at some point over the years.
“I have four nephews here, my daughter and my son, their friends from high school — all my workers come back,” Olson said from the kitchen of one of her booths.
She’ll spend the fair going back and forth between one around the corner from the Giant Slide and another abutting the grandstand, making sure everything is running smoothly, and greeting a steady stream of fans and friends who come to the back door looking for her.
It’s an intense two weeks to replay every summer.
“We’ve been here 37 years,” she said. “When we come back, we just pick up where we left off.”
A lot of that has to do with institutional memory. A core group of returning workers has collectively spent more than 100 summers working here.
“I grew up with Martha,” said Katie Atlas, who has staffed the booth for 21 years. Atlas, who was raised in St. Paul across the alley from the Olsons, was baby-sat by Martha. When Atlas got older, she baby-sat Martha’s kids.
Manager Alicia Weidnan, Atlas’ sister, roams from station to station — from the industrial mixers to the “dollopers” that drop raw dough onto baking sheets, to the serving windows, where metal scoops soiled with chocolate are swapped out for clean ones and the cash drawers stay stocked with singles. She has worked here for 16 years.
“We take off from our regular jobs to come here,” said Weidnan, who works in financial planning and saves her vacation time for the fair. “You have those people who are here every day, year after year. It’s really fun to get to tell people that [I work here].”
Employees work their way up the ladder — the highest point being a mixer.
Kim Nelson, a baking supervisor at New French Bakery, spends her State Fair each year tending to the dough, a beautiful, brown sugar-colored cement that comes together partly by trial and error and partly by intuition. Nelson can eyeball when the dough is just right by the way the chocolate chips sit in the mixture.
Hers is a prized position.
“Being a mixer is a badge of honor,” she said while demonstrating what’s known as the “mixer lean,” a casual stance with one arm propped up on the machine.
“Everyone wants to work back here, but not everyone can hack it.”
Many employees say they don’t indulge much in the product anymore. Years of too many cookies will do that to a person. (Does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have a category of workplace hazards that includes the threat of obesity?)
But bits of dough cast off from the dolloper, or hot-baked cookies that fly off the trays onto the counter instead of into the bucket, do make their way into workers’ mouths from time to time: one of the unusual perks of tending the hottest counter at the State Fair.
Formerly in the frozen yogurt business, Martha and her partners found their way into the fair with the mini-cookie idea, inspired by the success of Famous Amos. They built a 9- by 11-foot booth in their backyard, and have moved across the fairgrounds six times over the years.
Every time, they add on some newfangled equipment, such as the mega-ovens that spin towers of metal racks stocked full of baking sheets around and around so every side gets a blast of heat. The ovens can handle 24,000 cookies every 12 minutes.
The plastic pail dates back to 1992. Before that, there were only paper cones.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Olson said. “People wanted a bigger quantity, and I thought, ‘What are you gonna do with all those cookies?’ ”
But the pail, with its lid, became the perfect vehicle to transport cookies home, store them in the freezer and enjoy at will.
“And then it’s turned into people going together in large groups to purchase the pail, and everyone eats them together,” she said.
Management has gotten cookie-making down to a science. Olson estimates sales of 1 million cookies a day during the fair. Consistently, the business brings in more revenue than any other earner at the fair; last year, Sweet Martha’s grossed almost $3 million (about $2 million more than the next highest-grossing food vendor, the Midwest Dairy Association).
Sweet Martha’s popularity is undisputed among most fairgoers who have ever walked past the booth and gotten a whiff of the sweet scent.
Ben Passer grew up about a mile from the fairgrounds in Roseville. “We always walked to the fair because we lived so close, and I remember thinking as a kid that even though I was tired and my feet hurt, that unmistakable white cone of cookies would be well worth the wait,” he said. “Of course, it always was.”
Finally at the front of the line, Toy Williams said, “I’ve been saving up for this.” She meant calories, not the $16 for the pail.
“These are the best cookies in the whole wide world,” the Apple Valley resident said as she reached across the window for her bounty — about four dozen fresh, golden cookies.
Behind the window, the staff brings out fresh trays of cookies at breakneck pace. They are well aware of their popularity.
“There’s something about the chocolate chip cookie that’s a home run,” said manager Ryan Caulfield, who took off from his job as executive chef at Cossetta Alimentari in St. Paul to put in a 25th summer at Sweet Martha’s.
“It’s the status symbol of the State Fair.”