Owner Jim Steichen is the third-generation family member to run the convenience store and deli, established in 1933 by his grandfather Ted Sr., who also operated a grocery business in St. Paul for many years. The market has always been in the same location -- 1778 Commissary Loop -- which Steichen describes as being "two buildings north of the Coliseum, behind the Poultry Building."
"Every year, we'll have so many people come in and tell us they've never seen us before," he said. "Once they find us, it makes me happy to be able to help them out if there is something they need when they're out here."
In addition to fair visitors, typical customers for Steichen's Market include fair workers, 4-H youth and anyone who spends enough time at the fairgrounds to need to wash dishes or do laundry (the market is stocked with a variety of cleaning supplies).
A longtime operation
To say the fair is in the Steichen family's blood would be an understatement.
"I've been working at the fair since I was 8 years old," said Steichen, who turns 50 next month. "In those days, we sold all the meat to food vendors at the fair and one of my first jobs was to pack the chickens in ice. When I got older, I'd deliver meat around the fairgrounds on a two-wheeled cart."
For many years, all the hamburger meat was custom-ground in the store -- Steichen said he's planning to put the original grinder on display this year. Several old photos of Steichen's Market, as well as vintage grocery signs, currently line the store walls.
He has fond memories of working with his grandfather, who died in 1975. Steichen said he occasionally senses his grandfather's presence in the store, especially during the setup weeks before the fair opens.
Steichen's father, Ted Jr., launched his own career at the family market at about the same age as Jim did, also serving as a delivery boy. Now 77, the elder Steichen handed over the reins of the store to his son several years ago, but still spends a few days there as the self-proclaimed "man-in-waiting" who runs out and picks up supplies as needed.
"We reminisce about the good old days. There aren't too many of the places out there anymore that there used to be, but it's still a good family affair," said Ted Steichen. "It's a place to bring your family together and enjoy what's there."
A small but hardworking staff, which includes nephew Anthony Zappa and family friend Hunter Bowlin, keeps things running smoothly in the market. Jim Steichen's daughter, Calleigh, a high school junior, may log a few shifts this year, too.
"All of us who work at the market have become like a family. We've seen a lot of 'you had to be there' kind of things together, so we definitely have a lot of laughs," said Steichen. "We have fun. You really have to do that out here."
The store opens daily at 7 a.m., ready with fresh coffee and doughnuts, and closes 30 minutes after the fireworks end. In addition to the convenience store items, the market features made-to-order deli sandwiches, salads and fresh fruit. Last year, Steichen created a new breakfast sandwich that was so popular that it's back on the menu this year.
"No sticks, no grease," he said, with a laugh.
Over the years, staff members have learned that Steichen's Market is something of an anomaly among state fairs.
"I've heard from so many people involved with other fairs that there is nothing out there that's quite like our store," said Jim. "It's nice to know that we have something unique to the Minnesota State Fair."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.
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