Workers clad in yellow safety vests and plastic face shields cheered Thursday morning when the first car rolled up to Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar, on the north end of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
It was the last stop on a meandering one-way drive along streets that should have been filled with hundreds of thousands of pedestrians. Instead, with the 2020 fair shuttered because of COVID-19, the streets were only available to ticketed vehicles on opening day of the first-ever Minnesota State Fair Food Parade.
Guests who were lucky enough to score one of the 19,000 tickets — which sold out in only 2½ hours — have the chance to purchase food from 16 of the fair's most iconic vendors, all without leaving their cars, SUVs and minivans. The event runs three long weekends, through Labor Day.
Sweet Martha herself, Martha Rossini Olson, waved vehicles into spots in two lanes out front, then delivered buckets teeming with four dozen hot chocolate chip cookies (in plastic bags, for safety) to the passenger-side windows.
Dan Mulcahey of Brooklyn Park bought the maximum allowed: six buckets and six milks. On the dashboard of his car was a placard with the number 1; he was the first car in the parade Thursday morning, after arriving at the gate two hours early.
"I thought there'd be a bigger line," he said.
While he didn't stop at every stand along the route, Mulcahey came to stock up on fair treats: Mouth Trap cheese curds, a chocolate shake from the Dairy Goodness Bar, Fresh French Fries and, at last, Sweet Martha's. One of his buckets "will definitely be gone before this afternoon," he said. The rest, he planned to freeze until the next cookie craving struck.
Olson, who co-owns the fair's bestselling food stand, watched the slow and steady trickle of cars driving up to her business. At best, she hopes the stand will bring in 10 to 15% of its usual income, but it's better, she admitted, than nothing.
"We've never had anything like this," she said. "The last time the fair was canceled, I wasn't born yet. To me, this is historic."
Nicole Hines got "weepy" Thursday morning as she watched cars line up along the Midway, waiting to enter the route. "It's emotional," said the supervisor of the fair's attractions and food concessions.
Hines wrestled with how to hold a fair-like event safely and, like a handful of other fairs around the country, landed on the drive-through experience.
The fair received some backlash for the $20 ticket price, which doesn't include food but does include a goody bag and coupons equal to $20 in value. The fee was intended to help control the crowd, pay performers sprinkled along the route and cover the exorbitant costs of getting the fairgrounds up and running, Hines said. It takes about a half-million dollars just to turn the water on and back off again.
After the first weekend concludes, it's possible more tickets will be released, Hines said. "We wanted a slow start."
Most fairs, after all, kick off with a few kinks.
Tim "Giggles" Weiss struggled Thursday morning with a card reader that wasn't working and traffic holdups between his stand, Giggles' Campfire Grill, and the two stands on either side of his.
But "I'm not complaining," he said. "We're all in this together."
Without beer sales, which account for half the stand's usual income, Weiss was expecting to make about 20% of what he would in a normal year. "I'm fortunate to have a wife who works, and I've got great creditors," he said with a laugh.
Sharon Richards-Noel was also catching up to demand after electricity went out in her West Indies Soul Food trailer. She was used to first-day jitters and snafus, but even after the electrical problem resolved, it didn't feel like a regular fair, she said while flipping jerk chicken on the grill.
"It's not the fellowship, the socializing. It's not the same," she said. "I'm very grateful. But this is just cooking."
Nearby at Hansen's Foot Long Hot Dogs & Corn Dogs, social media promoter Erica Parsons said the morning had been "bizarre" so far. "I'm kind of at a loss for words," she said. "We're glad to do it, and it's important to have that State Fair tradition that people love," but speaking to guests from behind a mask and serving them through their car windows on near-empty fairgrounds, "it almost seems dystopian in a way."
Still, some of the first carloads of guests to enter the parade wouldn't dream of missing an early morning at the fair.
The Fredrickson family, of Eden Prairie and Stillwater, have a tradition of buying the first Mouth Trap cheese curds sold on opening day of every fair in the past 31 years. Their vehicle was third through the gate on Thursday, and with stops for fresh-cut fries, Tom Thumb Donuts and other concessions along the way, their record of being first was broken.
"But it's 2020," said Jessica Fredrickson from the back seat. "It's the weird year."