Mary Zadach is one of the Minnesota State Fair's biggest winners and she didn't even take home a ribbon.

The retired St. Paul accountant is the creator of the Tot Dog, which is among this year's standout new foods. The idea came to her a couple of years ago as she was walking around Lake Como, her thoughts turning to the fair and its deep-fried delicacies.

"I'm not a chef by trade — or much of a cook," said Zadach. "But I got a deep fryer and I started experimenting."

Perfecting the tot-crusted corn dog turned out to be tricky; she had to master the delicate balance of batter and chopped, fluffy potatoes. (Luckily, her husband is a good sport and a hot dog fan.) After experimenting with whole potatoes, onion bits, chopped store-bought tots and batter consistency, she finally felt she had a fair-worthy dish.

Now the hard part: getting this invention-on-a-stick into the hands of fairgoers, a notoriously arduous and competitive process.

"This year, a committee combed through nearly 100 applications and whittled it down to what we subjectively felt were the best of the best for the year," said Danielle Dullinger, the fair's food and beverage director. A total of 38 made the cut.

Luckily for Zadach, she chose an experienced team to entrust with her creation.

"I looked at the reviews from the Star Tribune at the fair last year and LuLu's seemed to be one of the best vendors," she said. "I contacted them in February."

The owners of LuLu's Public House, Charlie Burrows and Mike Brennan, have been feeding fairgoers for more than 21 years. They began with Axel's, outside the Food Building, and opened LuLu's Public House at the expanded West End Market in 2016.

The duo also own several restaurants, and Zadach's letter pitching the Tot Dog landed with the chef at one of them, Lucky's 13 Pub. It eventually found its way to Burrows, who took the recipe out for a test fry. The result had strong potential. It then went to Burrow's son, Max, for another taste test and the team agreed: The Tot Dog would be one of the foods they'd submit to the Minnesota State Fair to be considered as a new entry.

Burrows has struck new fair food gold before — LuLu's Dual Berry Shortcake and ghost pepper-spiked cheese curds were among the top foods of 2021. He said the key is incorporating a food that people already love.

"You can do something way out there, but to have it be successful, you have to have a common food," he said.

That's exactly what the fair is looking for.

"We look at feasibility, 'wow' factor, the varied dietary needs of guests, geographic balance of products, uniqueness and more," Dullinger said. "Most importantly, does it actually taste good? We at the Minnesota State Fair pride ourselves on providing genuinely great foods — not just things that are gimmicky."

But the Tot Dog still needed tweaking. One key move was to take the cheese out of the potato mixture and instead serve a cheese sauce on the side. With cheese in the batter, the hot dogs would get too dark, too toasty and had a chance of tasting burned.

"It's one thing to make four tot dogs; it's another to make thousands," said Zadach.

On opening day, fairgoers and critics had their first opportunity to experience the Tot Dog, and it was an immediate hit. The Star Tribune called it "the kind of genius that makes us wonder why no one ever tried this before."

But for the folks at LuLu's Public House, it's been all about keeping up with demand.

"We were prepared for 1,500 to 1,700 a day. We blew that away. I spent the last two sleepless nights trying to figure out how to produce more," Burrows said earlier this week. A second production location was quickly added, and Burrows says they are selling "well in excess" of 2,000 a day.

Zadach and her family went to the fair on the second day. Her son, Uriah Blatherwick, stood in line at LuLu's, watching order after order of Tot Dogs parade past. A humble Midwesterner, Zadach didn't use her status as its creator to skip to the front of the line and didn't ask to be paid, either. But she was rewarded with some nice LuLu's swag when she met with the owners.

"It's just been wonderful to see. I'm so excited to share it," she said.