Tyler Conrad was filling shelves with Minnesota-themed products. Megan Hare was filling pans with bacon on a stick. Jan Hildebrand was arranging a beer delivery.
The State Fairgrounds was abuzz with activity Wednesday as vendors and fair officials prepared to welcome thousands of guests to this weekend's "Kickoff to Summer," a new event to fill the void left last year when the Great Minnesota Get-Together was called off due to the pandemic, and to whet the appetite for the expected return of the late summer extravaganza in August.
All tickets offered through a lottery system sold out quickly, so no walk-ins will be admitted at the event, which runs Thursday through Monday. Ticket holders — up to 10,000 at a time who paid $12.50 each — have been assigned a time slot allowing them to wander the grounds for five hours to eat, shop, go on rides and take in concerts.
"We figured demand would be high," said fair spokeswoman Danielle Dullinger. "It is on a small scale, but it will be a good taste of the fair."
Last year's cancellation left a void in the summer for the 2 million people who normally pass through the turnstiles, and put a big dent in State Fair finances. The fair lost $16 million last year and vendors lost out, too. Hildebrand, who has run concessions at the fair for 33 years, on Wednesday was readying her tent for thirsty patrons and was glad to see her friends again.
"It's so good to be back after the strangest year of my life," she said. "I'm hugging and kissing everybody. I missed the fireworks, too."
There won't be pyrotechnics this weekend, but eventgoers can nosh on everything from the treasured Sweet Martha's cookies to tacos to Pronto Pups. Hare and friend Alexana Lofton spent Wednesday afternoon filling trays with bacon on a stick at the Big Fat Bacon booth, one of 24 participating food vendors.
"This is exciting," said Hare, a five-year fair veteran. "I love the atmosphere. My family is a fair family. I'm excited."
Simon Mendez and his son, Rico, had perfect attendance at every fair since 1968, and they jumped at the chance to bring their El Sol Mexican Foods trailer to this weekend's mini version. The pop dispenser malfunctioned Wednesday, but Simon promised it would be ready for Thursday's opening, along with his menu featuring tacos, burritos, nachos and a chip-and-cheese combo.
Conrad spent the past two days stocking shelves with Minnesota-themed products at Good Things, including the No. 1 seller of the 2019 fair, a T-shirt that reads "Pontoon Captain." He said the weekend will be a sort of "test run" for when he plans to return for the larger fair in August. Fair officials have not said what the main attraction — scheduled to run Aug. 26 to Sept. 6 — will look like, but Dullinger said they hope to learn a lot this weekend.
Masks will not be required at the "Kickoff to Summer," which will be the largest event on the fairgrounds since the coronavirus arrived in March 2020. The mask requirement was dropped after the state recently relaxed COVID-19 guidelines for outdoor events, but State Fair employees will wear them.
The fairgrounds hosted the Twin Cities Auto Show earlier this month, and two other car shows are scheduled this summer. In planning this weekend's event, "we knew we could handle 10,000 people at a time, and we hope it goes smooth," Dullinger said.
Energy and anticipation was high on the fairgrounds Wednesday under sunny skies. About the only cloud over the event was a threat of rain predicted for opening day Thursday. But even that didn't dampen enthusiasm.
"Just bring a poncho," Dullinger said. "People always go to the fair when it rains."