When the Minnesota State Fair was called off, Sirena Sosa considered catching a flight to Los Angeles.
She could not go a whole summer without cheese on a stick. “That is my all-time favorite,” said the New Brighton woman, who happens to work for an airline.
Sosa knew of a vendor who sells the battered chunks of American cheese on the pier in Huntington Beach, Calif. But then, she found the fair’s own vintage Cheese on a Stick booth planted in the grass outside a VFW in Roseville. It took only a short car ride to get the deep-fried treat, no air travel required.
Two months before the Minnesota State Fair’s usual end-of-August residency, Sosa had crossed off a major item on her summer checklist. “It’s a tradition,” she said, standing over a picnic table, a paper basket with molten cheese set in front of her 10-year-old son.
With the 2020 State Fair canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, visitors and vendors alike are looking to food to fill the void left by the loss of Minnesota’s most beloved annual gathering.
Classic carnival treats, usually available only 12 days a year, have become summer’s unofficial menu as many longtime food vendors set up their stands in parking lots, on roadsides, outside breweries and at dormant fairgrounds across the state. Vendors with food trucks or brick-and-mortar restaurants are now serving some of their fair specialties alongside their regular dishes.
And Minnesotans are going out of their way to get their fair-themed snacks, with a Facebook group and an interactive map as their guide.
Once a week, David and James Wold, of Coon Rapids, have a lunch date at the Anoka County Fairgrounds, where at least three fair food-stands have parked for the last few weeks. The father and son eat whatever is available on that particular day. “We once had ice cream for lunch,” David said.
By firing up the fryers all summer long, vendors are hoping to recoup a small slice of what the fair’s cancellation is costing them. Many are grateful for the ability to reach fair-hungry patrons in an otherwise devastating year for business. But no fix can make up for the absence of 200,000 customers walking past their booths every day. For the most successful vendors, the fair has the potential to bring in enough business in two weeks to support them the rest of the year.
The fair in 2019 “was a record year and it was a substantial part of our bottom line,” said Stephanie Shimp, whose Blue Plate Restaurant Co. operates the fair’s iconic Blue Barn. “It will be a big miss this year for us.”
The Blue Barn isn’t sitting this summer out. It’s coming back in food truck form, as well as a July 4 weekend pop-up at Blue Plate restaurants, such as the Freehouse in Minneapolis and Groveland Tap in St. Paul. Zany classics from the cobalt building just inside the fair’s West End Gate, such as chicken in a waffle cone and Pop Rocks French toast, will be on the menu. It’s only a small bite of the fair, but the food’s symbolism runs deeper, Shimp said.
“We need a small victory, just a small win,” she said. “There’s something about the State Fair, and food in particular, that creates community. If we can bring the State Fair out to you, perhaps we can have just a little bit of that community again.”
A doughnut fix
In a windy lot on the side of a construction-torn road, a bright red and yellow trailer equipped with mini-donut machines is stamping out deep-fried sweets and selling them by the bucket. Red X’s mark the spot where customers can stand safely in lines that don’t seem to ebb.
The Donut Family has only been a Minnesota State Fair presence for four years, but the vendor has been stationed at fairs around the country for almost half a century. This summer, it’s positioned in the parking lot outside its own North St. Paul warehouse, and in another lot outside an Eden Prairie Harley-Davidson dealer.
“A lot of people depend on this,” said Todd Hawkins, one of the members behind the Donut Family. “It’s our livelihood.”
You can easily find stands around the Twin Cities, such as this, thanks to the effort of two fair food fans.
Lori Lexvold and her son Ian Lexvold manage the 130,000-member-strong Fair Food Finder group on Facebook. “The loss of not having the State Fair this year was very upsetting, and I thought, ‘What better way to help out those food vendors that make their livelihood over the year from the Minnesota State Fair or any of the county fairs? How can we help them?’ ”
She invited 100 of her Facebook friends to join and contribute information about food tents and carts that had been popping up. It grew fast, she said.
It has even gotten the attention of Minnesota State Fair leadership. The group’s name was originally “Minnesota State Fair Food Finder,” and the official fair was getting so many inquiries about the list — people requesting changes, or confusing it with the fair’s own “State Fair Food Finder” — that it had to ask the Lexvolds to change the name.
Still, “many of us who work at the fair and love all fair foods are members of the group and plan to support these various stands to get our own fair food fix,” said Minnesota State Fair spokeswoman Lara Hughes.
With the help of a map that Ian Lexvold plotted, group members have been traversing the metro and farther-flung towns seeking out cheese curds, lemonade, fried ice cream and giant turkey legs, and posting photos of their finds. Devotees also share new locations of vendors they spot, and obsessively check others’ posts in hopes of locating a favorite, Ian said.
Some spots with multiple vendors look like a mini-fair-turned-tailgating party. “People were pulling up in cars, getting food, driving a little ways away, opening up the back of the minivan, and pulling out chairs and sitting there and visiting, making a family event out of it,” Lori said.
Outside the Roseville VFW one recent weekday, the 40-year-old Cheese on a Stick stand had a line of patrons, 6 feet apart, waiting for their food. Corn dogs were on the menu, too, and green Giant Slide T-shirts were for sale.
Owner Stacey Barona of Roseville is donating a portion of the Cheese on a Stick proceeds back to the VFW, which is hosting the stand through July 5. The volume can’t match that of the fair, but the stream of customers has surprised Barona.
“People who wouldn’t go to the fair are coming here,” she said. Some who were otherwise unable to attend the fair in the past — the elderly, people with mobility issues or those who couldn’t afford the gate entrance — can now have a taste. Barona has been able to rehire half her staff since she set up the stand June 1.
When the fair was canceled, “my heart sank,” Barona said. “It wasn’t the money part of it. It’s because it’s a part of Minnesota. It’s like, another thing has been taken away from us.”
But now, “the people are so happy,” she said. “Even if I don’t break even, it gives people hope just for a piece of the fair.”
A production dilemma
Not every vendor has the option to start over somewhere else.
Eight-hundred workers will go without a job this August as long as the ovens remain off in Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar’s three fair stands. And because those high-powered ovens are in permanent structures on the fairgrounds, the fair’s top-seller can’t make cookies at that rate anywhere else.
“People have said to me, ‘Martha, you just lost your annual income.’ I said, ‘Oh, I know,’ ” said Martha Rossini Olson, who co-founded Sweet Martha’s in 1979. “We just have to rearrange things and see what we can do to make it all work this time, just like everyone else.”
Olson is fielding ideas — from friends and fans — about what to do in the fair’s place. Sales of Sweet Martha’s cookie dough in grocery stores are already up this year, she noted.
In the meantime, she and her team have been volunteering at community organizations that are getting food to people in need, and Olson is trying to come to terms with her first fair-less summer in four decades. “It’s very weird,” she said. “It’s so much more emotional than I thought it would be.”
An emotional impact
More than money is lost when an event of the fair’s magnitude is canceled.
The fair has given Sharon Richards-Noel’s food business, West Indies Soul Food, a home in the International Bazaar for 20 years. It also gives her a way to honor her late son.
Just months before her very first fair, Richards-Noel lost the person who made her food stand possible. Her son, Emanual, who had encouraged her to submit an application, was killed in a car accident.
“We had all these plans when the State Fair started,” she said. “And then he passed and the fair came, and I was just moving. I don’t know what I was doing, but I was doing this.”
She told herself, “I have to have enough strength. I’m doing this on behalf of my son.”
Richards-Noel lost money that first year, but looked at each subsequent late summer gathering as a chance to do better. She broke even for a while, and last year, she finally made a profit. Even then, the income from the fair was only enough to offset losses from her year-round business, catering Caribbean food for a school in St. Paul that has a large proportion of homeless students.
She had high hopes that 2020 would be better. Then came the coronavirus pandemic.
As food businesses pick up the pieces from a fractured dining landscape, West Indies Soul Food has pivoted from catering and events to online ordering and curbside pickup out of a food truck that also had its summer calendar wiped clean.
“We trying to be resilient,” Richards-Noel said.
But nothing can replace the fair. Not the income, and not the people. Over two decades, Richards-Noel forged friendships with customers and other vendors. She and the other International Bazaar stands would barter their food and goods; Richards-Noel once traded her signature jerk chicken for French soaps.
A worker who stopped by West Indies Soul Food for coffee each day of the fair always offered Richards-Noel bulbs from his garden in exchange at the end of the season. This was the first year the flowers bloomed for her, and she couldn’t wait to tell him.
“I won’t get to see a lot of people I’m used to seeing,” she said. “And that give me energy.”
Above all, nothing can replace her son’s memory, imprinted on her business — in an image on her food truck and upon the stand she returns to every year at the fairgrounds.
“The fair is dedicated to him,” Richards-Noel said. “It means a lot to me.”