FARIBAULT, Minn. – When most people are brewing their morning coffee, Kathy Heise is making cotton candy — at the end of her driveway.
For the first time in the decades that Heise has run a Pronto Pup booth, she’s not sure whether she’ll be able to go on her usual circuit of county fairs and other events this summer. So Heise, who is 65, a few weeks ago decided to open the stand in front of her Faribault home.
“I’ll be here ’til I can go to a fair. I have to,” she said. “It’s my whole world.”
At least 11 county fairs in Minnesota have been called off this year because of coronavirus, and the leaders of many others are on the fence about whether to carry on or cancel.
The Minnesota State Fair is still scheduled to go on in late August, but that looks questionable. Minnesotans cannot gather in groups larger than 10 at the moment, and state officials canceled high school graduations. North Dakota, which has taken less stringent social distancing measures, has canceled its mid-July state fair. The fate of the Iowa State Fair, which happens just before Minnesota’s, will be announced next month.
Gov. Tim Walz could cancel this year’s Great Minnesota Get-Together and smaller fairs. But without that guidance, Steve Storck, president of the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs, said counties are grappling with the decision.
“If it’s allowed in the first place, will the people even show up for the fair?” Storck said. “There’s a lot of ifs. I think when the fairs sit down and weigh the pros and cons, a lot of times it’s like, we can survive a year not having a fair, but we cannot survive a year having a poor fair and costing us money in the end.”
Storck said he believes Walz doesn’t want to be seen as the person who shut down summer events, thereby leaving it to the discretion of each county how to proceed. But that runs the risk of ending up like school districts, he said, that made plans to safely host a graduation ceremony only to be told in the end they couldn’t.
Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, a State Fair staple, said it will cooperate with authorities and fair officials to sustain the health and safety of everyone, including its 800 employees.
“Since the fate of the fair is still unknown, we’re cautiously moving forward with planning,” said crew member Erica Dao.
Such uncertainty leaves vendors like Heise in the breeze, but already her calendar and bank account show the effects of the pandemic. A handful of community events around southern Minnesota were canceled, and she anticipates other fairs joining the list.
Back in March while making face masks at home, she noticed more events being canceled and decided to set up her Pronto Pup stand at home, with customers now dubbing Heise the “Highway 60 Fair.”
“If I wasn’t doing this I wouldn’t be making a dime,” she said. “It’s really helping because I would have nothing otherwise. You live on that money you make all summer.”
Drivers pull up on their way home from work and semis honk as they pass by. A state trail behind her house brings in bicyclists. A local company donated a sign directing people on the trail to cut through Heise’s backyard for a lemonade or deep-fried treat.
Sisters Renee Van Tol and Chantal Shreve did a double-take on their way from Lakeville to Mankato to visit their parents.
“It was a total surprise,” Van Tol said. They passed by the stand, then made a U-turn because their 76-year-old father, who is undergoing cancer treatment, loves Pronto Pups. “He will be so excited,” she said.
Melissa Schlueter regularly stops on her drive home from work. She recently picked up a bag of cotton candy for her 14-year-old son. “Might as well patronize the local community,” she said. “We can’t have all the fun, but I think it’s pretty cool to be able to do this.”
John Dvorak, Rice County Fair executive secretary, said the fair hasn’t been canceled, though he can’t say it’s definitely happening. Revenue suffered last year because of rain and a tornado threat.
With this year’s fair in limbo, Dvorak knows food vendors are hurting as well. “They depend on fairs and events to sell their food. With that not happening, they’re feeling the crunch, too,” he said.
Over Mother’s Day weekend, he invited five loyal vendors to set up at the fairgrounds, creating a mini-fair that turned out to be a hit, with most vendors selling out. County health officials and the sheriff approved of the event, he said, given that social distancing rules were followed, and customers couldn’t congregate and had to take food home.
“It was a welcomed sight for people to get their fair food fix,” he said.
Brad Schroder appreciated the opportunity to set up his concession stand that’s been in the family for 58 years.
“We’ve been good to the fair as vendors and [Dvorak] realizes that and he know it’s going to be a hard year for them and equally as hard for us,” he said. “It’s a big concern. It’s our livelihood and business. We’re dependent on the fairs and celebrations and special events through the season that starts the end of April and runs up until October.”
Schroder said by this time he would’ve been to five events, but the mini-fair was better than nothing. “People seemed to be anxious for something like this,” he said. “I’m very thankful. It did give us the chance to break the ice for the summer, whatever our season might be. It was nice to get out there and work a couple of days.”
He said the uncertainty of county fairs “is a real killer,” but he remains optimistic. Though he can weather this summer without a full schedule of events, he said, “I could never get to next year and have the same thing happen again. Hopefully things get straightened out before next season.”
Heise is used to making the rounds each week, setting up her stand at county fairs and cities like Blooming Prairie, Mantorville and Owatonna throughout the summer during annual festivals that draw large crowds to her stand. She puts in long days inside the small 8-foot-by-10-foot stand, dipping hot dogs in the famous Pronto Pup batter and making popcorn and snow cones.
She married into the business in 1988. Her late husband, Ray Heise, started the Pronto Pup stand in the 1950s. She said her husband, who died of cancer in 2001, is still with her every day in the stand, and his memory keeps her going.
These days, the pace is a lot different from fairs, but it’s been busy enough.
“That first week I didn’t think anybody would stop,” she said. “I cried for an hour. I was overwhelmed. Everyone was stopping. They were so happy to see me, to get out and get a little bit of summer, a little bit of the fair.”
Unlike at fairs, many customers at her driveway are leaving tips, which Heise tries to refuse, knowing others are struggling financially during the pandemic. Her cash-only stand means she occasionally takes orders on the honor system, trusting people will come back to pay or pay it forward in another way.
She said being a concessionaire isn’t all about the money; she treasures the connections made along the way.
“Each fair you go to is your family,” she said. “Every spot is your family for one week, and you love them all.”