If Martha Rossini had gotten her way back when she first asked for a food stand at the Minnesota State Fair, there's a chance she might not have become a fair gastro-icon. Sweet Martha's Frozen Yogurt just isn't as tantalizing as her hot, gooey-in-the-middle, crisp-around-the-edges chocolate chip cookies.

And hundreds of thousands of fairgoers every year seem to agree.

Eye On St. Paul sat down with Sweet Martha a few days before the start of the fair to talk about the time before she became the cookie queen and to drill into such mysteries as: How do they get all those cookies into a small cone, anyway?

This interview was edited for length.

Q: How long have you been at the fair?

A: Since 1979. In 1978, we had a yogurt shop in Minneapolis on Hennepin Avenue. My brother Ray came up with the name Sweet Martha. I said: "Oh, so now I have to be sweet?" Anyway, we started with cookie crumbles to sprinkle on the yogurt.

In 1979, we asked the fair if we could open a stand, but they already had yogurt. Then, about three weeks before the start, they said yes — to cookies.

We built the stand in our yard and I worked on the recipe. It's different when you have to multiply something by 1,000, or whatever it is.

Q: How did you staff it?

A: Well, us [her three longtime partners] and maybe three of our friends. I think about that, and what we are doing now.

Q: Were cookies just flying out of the oven at the start?

A: No. It was a single small stand and people would come by and look at all these cookies, and say, "What the heck? We get more than one?" People were coming by, and we were giving samples. Anyone who came up, we'd say, "Would you like to try a sample?"

They'd take the sample, take a bite and turn around and come back [laughs].

Q: Whose idea was it to use a cone?

A: One of my friends was with a dance company. They were traveling to New York City. He saw a place that was serving cookies in cones. And I liked that idea because people couldn't just put them in a bag and put it away. They had to eat them right away. And that was publicity for our product.

Q: Why pile so many onto the cone?

A: To get our customers trying them right there. We wanted to get to the right number, because we don't want them to fall.

Q: What's the magic number?

A: Usually, we try 10 to 12 cookies.

Q: When did you introduce the bucket?

A: That was like 1986.

Q: But I can't close the bucket until we eat about a dozen cookies.

A: [Laughs] Here we go again. We just try to put whatever we can get [in them]. There are customers who say, "Pease, don't put so much in!" I mean, we have to.

Q: How many people are you employing during the fair now?

A: We aim for 750. So it's a big crew. This year, we had about 500 return and we added about 250.

Q: Are they mostly high school and college kids?

A: A lot of them are. Most of them.

Q: Has it become a full-time business for you?

A: It did. After I'd taught elementary school, K-8, for 10 years down at Highland Catholic. I taught art. I still miss teaching. I did that for 25 years.

Q: Were you teaching when you started this?

A: Oh yeah. At first, I was [teaching art] in Burnsville, I could do this because it was in the summer. [But] you'd show up on the first day of school exhausted and say, "OK, let's be really quiet today."

Q: So has Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar become a year-round business for you?

A: Especially now that we've gone into frozen dough. We started that a few years ago.

Q: Besides the smell of the livestock barns, there are few things everyone at the fair knows by their nose. As soon as step into the fairgrounds, we can smell Sweet Martha's.

A: Well, that's another thing that really helps us out.

Q: How long do you think you'll be able to keep doing this?

A: Well. We keep plugging away. [My] kids will eventually be taking it over.

When we started, we could bake about 200 cookies in 12 minutes. Now, because at each stand we have convection ovens that have big racks. So, our three stands, when they're all going to the hilt, we can do 44,000 cookies every 12 minutes.

Q: What is the secret to your cookie, what makes it stand out?

A: I'd say it's the whole experience. We're mixing them right there. We're dolloping it. They come right out of the oven.

We're trying to mimic the way you did it at home. What happened to me at home, when I came home from school, my mom would say what the dessert was. I would always try to eat the dessert early. But I had four brothers. By the time you made the cookies for dessert, they were all gone. So that's what we're trying to mimic. [Laughs] They don't stick around very long at all.