Elaine Christiansen and Jan Bajuniemi are key players that helped their State Fair dining operation post record revenue that rose more than 40 percent to $280,000 during the just-completed 12-day run of the fair.

“We knocked the socks off it,” said Christiansen, 87, a 50-plus year volunteer at the Hamline Methodist Church Dining Hall. “The stars really came together for us this year.”

It’s almost as amazing that the Hamline Church dining hall, first opened in 1897, is still around in a fair-restaurant scene that has witnessed the demise of dozens of volunteer-food operations that benefited churches and charities.

Some have given way to professional restaurateurs who also have been able to sell beer and wine for more than a decade.

Outfits that sell alcoholic beverages such as Giggles’ Campfire Grill, the Ballpark, Lulu’s Public House and O’Gara’s do $900,000 to $1 million in revenue at the fair. And they are among the fair’s top-10 grossing eateries.

Hamline dining hall ranked 55th among food operations last year at $196,000 in sales.

There are now 24 for-profit restaurants that can sell beer and wine among 300 food locations, most of which sell French fries, corn dogs or something else on a stick, and don’t offer a full menu or ­seating.

The State Fair, a not-for-profit enterprise tasked with showcasing Minnesota agriculture, art and industry, was empowered by the Legislature a dozen years ago to sell strong beer and wine. And drinking establishments are a growth business.

“The audience votes with its dollars and that’s where the dollars have been headed,” said Dennis Larson, license administration manager at the fair.

That makes the business surge at Hamline Methodist all the more impressive. And also proves that not everyone wants a beer with their scrambled eggs, pancakes, hamburger or chicken dinner.

“[Hamline Church] has a good location, on Dan Patch Avenue, the main drag at the fair, and they are innovative and they really work hard at what they do well,” said ­Larson of the dining hall’s success. “My 85-year-old mom still likes to eat there. So that’s where we go.”

Hamline Church’s Christiansen said a lot of things went right to make this year’s fair performance a great success. There also was some innovation and a lot of elbow grease.

And it takes good food — starting with the fabled ham loaf or chicken or Swedish meatball dinners that sell for an economical $11.95 — to feed up to 140 diners at a time in a no-air conditioned hall. The hall features burgers, chicken-club wraps, and tossed garden and fruit salads, along with hummus ­platters and pita chips for the younger and lighter eaters.

The Hamline dining hall celebrated its 120th anniversary this year, which created something of a buzz around the fair’s oldest food vendor.

Meatballs are a hit

Moreover, Chef Erik Hendrickson, a church member and professional chef at a country club, hit a home run this year with his souped-up meatballs with wild rice and cranberries served with a small cup of lingonberries, along with a selection of side dishes. It was named a best new food of the fair. The food press lauded it, and it was a bestseller among the 20,000-plus dinners served by ­Hamline this year.

“That humble meatball has become a big thing at the fair, on top of all those things on a stick,” Bajuniemi said.

Many conclude dinner with a slice of homemade pie for $2.50. Or ice cream.

That ice cream comes from an innovative partnership with Izzy’s sold at a walk-up ice cream stand facing the street. This year’s “S’more Fun,” was a record-sales concoction of ice cream, roasted mini-marshmallows, semisweet chocolate and graham crackers, priced at $5 or $7. Past hits invented by church volunteers and Izzy’s for the fair include “Church ‘Elder’ Berry” and “Jell-O Salad” and “Mini-Donut Batter Crunch.”

Mostly volunteers

Hendrickson and up to 25 high school interns are the only paid staff during the fair. Up to 60 volunteers daily work four-to-five hour shifts.

This is a well-drilled force that prepares, serves and cleans with efficiency and purpose every day.

Last year, the dining hall returned about $55,000 to Hamline Church, after a donation to two food charities, Feed My Starving Children and the Sheridan Story. And that was after a new $12,000 roof was put atop the 1940s-vintage dining hall. This year’s revenue boost means a bigger take for both charities and the church, which counts on the fair to generate 10 percent of its annual revenue.

In the end, there is purpose to this business mission beyond profit: Church, charity and community served through satisfied diners for two weeks.

“It’s a gift to have the health and the sense of purpose and outreach to do what I do,” said the youthful Christiansen, tired but happy the day before the fair ended on Labor Day. “It adds a wonderful dimension to my life.

“We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.