With the Minnesota State Fair opening next week, perennial top vendor Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar is still looking for 100 workers to help serve heaping buckets of chocolate chip cookies.
Hot Indian Foods' executive chef Janene Holig has bumped up wages to $17-$20 an hour, borrowed staff from her regular restaurants, and "called in a lot of personal favors" to get some chef friends to pull double shifts at her State Fair booth. But she still needs 18 more workers.
Last week, Mark Andrew, a vendor at the fair for 49 years, blasted out an e-mail to about 60 friends pleading for people who might be willing to work. "In all my decades as a biz owner at the Minnesota State Fair, I have NEVER had a shortage of help," he wrote. "Until now."
Just as many restaurants, resorts and other employers struggled to find workers this spring and summer, the State Fair is also feeling the strains of a pandemic-induced labor shortage. Some vendors have bumped up wages. Others are finding creative ways to recruit before the 12-day fair starts Aug. 26.
The fair was canceled last year because of the pandemic. Amid the current resurgence in COVID-19 cases, fair leaders are debating whether to require masks in certain areas. For now, masks will be encouraged indoors, but not required.
On top of that, a gun owners group sued the fair last week demanding that permit holders be allowed to carry handguns onto the fairgrounds.
"This year is full of a lot of challenges and employment is definitely one of them," said Danielle Dullinger, a spokesperson for the State Fair.
The fair itself usually hires about 2,300 people to work the 12 days, doing everything from taking tickets to helping with crowd control to emptying trash barrels and cleaning bathrooms. But it's further behind on hiring than usual this year with about 400 positions still open. And that's not counting the hundreds of jobs that vendors would also still like to fill.
Dullinger chalked up the difficulty in finding workers to the same issues economists and employers have been citing for months: safety concerns of working during the pandemic, child care issues and extended unemployment benefits.
And with a temporary workforce comprised largely of high school and college students who come back every year, as well as retirees for whom working at the fair is on many bucket lists, some vendors also suspect that some of those workers might be unavailable this year because they've been able to find better, full-time jobs.
Metro Transit has warned it will offer fewer buses to the fair this year because it is also facing a labor crunch and doesn't have enough drivers.
"Regardless, the fair will take place," said Dullinger, adding that fairgoers are being asked to have a little extra patience. "We're telling people to expect that there might be longer lines at food vendors. There might be longer lines at the gates."
Tom Bettenburg, owner of the Tom Thumb Donuts booth that has been a staple at the fair for 71 years, said he'd normally hire 20 to 30 workers, but is having trouble this year getting 20. And that's despite bumping up wages by $2 an hour.
"It's the rare vendor out here who has extra help," he said last week while hauling a ladder and setting up his tent on the corner of Underwood Street and Carnes Avenue. "Wages are up and applications are down."
He worries that some new hires won't bother showing up after the first few days, something that happens every year. So he will add a $1-an-hour bonus for each person who makes it through the whole fair.
A block away, Kevin Hannigan at the Produce Exchange booth said he's mostly turned to his friends' teenagers for staffing help. He now has 17 workers, but would prefer to have 22.
"The problem is 10 of my employees are between 14 and 17 and never had a job before," he said. "I am having a really hard time finding qualified people."
Mike Kempenich, owner of the Gentleman Forager who has a State Fair booth selling mushrooms and other foraged items, only got one response, instead of 30, to a Facebook post asking his 15,000 followers for people to work at the fair. So he'll have to be at the booth every day and has turned to friends and volunteers for help.
"Honestly, I definitely would have liked to get more people hired because there are other things I could do with my time," he said, nodding to other new products he's working on such as a black walnut candy bar with Pearson's candies.
Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Co., which operates several restaurants around town and at the Blue Barn at the fair, said she's about 85% of the way to her goal of hiring 120 people for the fair.
"We're in a good place, but we've just had to work a lot harder than we have had to in previous years," she said.
This year, her team reached out for the first time to civic, sports and church groups to find people who might be interested in working to raise money for their organizations. That has helped, with a basketball and hockey team signing up for some shifts.
Blue Barn is also streamlining production and other processes to make things easier if it winds up short-staffed. And it has tapped a temp agency to help fill last-minute openings if some workers quit after the first days.
Andrew, who runs the Real S'Mores and World's Greatest French Fries booths, said it's hard to predict how much business they will get this year, and as a result, how many workers and stock they will need.
A record 2.1 million people visited the fair in 2019, but this year fair officials aren't sure what to expect given the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.
"Most years, there's been little doubt even with the impacts of bad weather, you're always pretty secure that you're going to have a good year, but this year it's up in the air," said Andrew. "Everything is up in the air."
In a typical year, Sweet Martha's, which has three booths at the fair, hires between 750 and 800 employees, many of them between the ages of 15 and 18, said hiring manager Katie Atlas. But this year, it's only hired about 650, and some of them seem to be signing up for fewer shifts. That's despite a raise in starting pay to about $15 an hour.
With no fair last year, Sweet Martha's didn't have as big of a pipeline of young recruits who wanted to come back this year. Atlas has asked her dedicated crew of returning employees to spread the word about job openings and she plans to reach out to former workers, too.
"I honestly have 100 percent faith that they are going to knock this one out of the park," she said. "We've gone through some really long years together and we trust each other. It's a great team. I'm very pumped that we will get through it just fine."