The Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday unveiled a Memorial Day weekend event that looks like a preview of post-pandemic possibilities at the fairgrounds.
While the fair's fate this summer remains unclear, officials unveiled a new walk-around "Kickoff to Summer at the Fair" for May 27-31. Tickets will be chosen by lottery and capped at 10,000 for seven time slots over five days.
The event will look a lot like a mini-State Fair with shopping, the Giant Slide, food, beer and live music on stages at the DNR Park, Visitors Plaza and Dan Patch Park. Guests will be required to wear masks, eat and drink only while seated, and follow all state guidelines.
Jason Giandalia, owner of MinneSnowii Shave Ice, who will be selling his hit "Mangonada" ice, called the kickoff a "morale booster" after the pandemic caused cancellations of county fairs and events throughout Minnesota in the past year.
"This just shows the progress we've made as a state and as a community with the vaccines and the masking," Giandalia said. "Now we're finally able to get back to some sort of normalcy."
Big Fat Bacon's Mandy Abdo said that until last year, she hadn't missed a fair in more than four decades. She will be there over Memorial Day, looking for her regular customers and selling the quarter-pound maple-glazed bacon on a stick with seven-pepper-and-sea-salt blend.
"It should be a blast," she said.
The event — sponsored by Paddle North, a kayak and paddle-board manufacturer in Columbia Heights — won't cure vendors' financial losses, but it could begin to salve some of the strain from last year.
The State Fair itself, which receives no state funding, reported an operating loss of $16.2 million for 2020.
In place of the actual fair last year, the Fairgrounds hosted drive-through food events in which visitors in their cars snaked through the grounds in long lines to purchase cheese curds, turkey drumsticks, tacos, cookies and other fair favorites.
About 31,000 attended the drive-through events in August, September and October, which sold out.
A sell-out of the Memorial Day weekend event would more than double that number. But that's still a long way from the 2.1 million people the State Fair drew during its last 12-day run in 2019.
"Last year's food parades were a big hit, but they were also very limited," State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer said. "This year, we're very happy to bring people back in a walk-around environment to enjoy a slice of the fair."
Vy Buy, co-owner of Que Viet — which sells eggrolls on a stick, garlic cream cheese wontons and Vietnamese coffee — said the fair drive-throughs were the only events her business did last year.
She said she's eager to see customers strolling up to her booth again.
"Just being at the State Fair feels like home to us now even though we're a relatively new vendor," she said.
The ticket lottery will be open through 11:59 p.m. Thursday. Winners can purchase up to six tickets at $12.50 each; children younger than 4 are free but must be ticketed.
The notion of people walking around the State Fairgrounds is the latest sign of progress against the virus.
Just last week, Gov. Tim Walz said a "normal" Minnesota State Fair, scheduled for Aug. 26-Sept. 6, is possible depending on vaccination rates and hospitalization numbers.
Hammer said the State Fair organization is "staying very flexible" with planning.
Blue Barn owner Steph Shimp considers the Memorial Day event a foreshadowing of good things to come.
Due to the extensive logistics of firing up the barn restaurant near the West End, Shimp won't be part of the kickoff, but she's ready for August with what she believes is a fabulous dish (though top secret for now) developed during the shutdown.
"We are full-steam ahead," she said. "We are working on our new food, our new beverages."
Participating vendors include State Fair mainstays such as Fresh French Fries, Hansen's Foot Long Hot Dogs & Corn Dogs, Mouth Trap Cheese Curds, Produce Exchange, Pronto Pups, Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar, Tiny Tim Donuts and West Indies Soul Food. A full list is available online.
Participating artisans and merchants include Angry Minnow Vintage and Crowned Crow, Crystal Visions, Gentleman Forager, Gold Country, GoodThings, Hagen and Oats, Minnesota Rusco, Paddle North, Paul's Porch Pots, Sota Clothing, the Star Tribune, State FairWear and Whatnot Boutique.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747