When Dennis Larson was the food and beverage czar at the Minnesota State Fair, he was constantly asked: What’s the best food? What’s the best value?
What do you eat?
As the boss, he didn’t think it would be, yes, fair to pick favorites. So he’d usually defer to the top 10 foods at the fair, the fan favorites that sell the most year after year: Sweet Martha’s cookies, cheese curds, roasted corn, pickles, french fries, shakes and all-you-can-drink milk. And mini-donuts, of course.
But Larson retired last year after 18 years in charge. Now he’s a free agent roaming the grounds in search of food, like the rest of us. So last week, on the opening day of the fair, we wandered with him to glean some fair food insights.
Larson grew up in Maplewood and now lives in White Bear Lake, and has a long fair history, like many of the officials there. (Long-time Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer grew up just down the street from the fair and used to hop the fence as a kid.)
Larson’s grandparents worked at the old Christ Lutheran Church diner and his dad worked in the fair’s police reserves. That was Larson’s first fair job, too: working as a police reserve member — handling traffic, and security duties in the International Bazaar.
His son has worked on the fair’s facilities squad, and this year a granddaughter is working in one of the Sweet Martha’s cookie buildings.
In 1991, Larson switched from security to conducting spot checks of food and beer vendors to help determine their sales numbers. Vendors pay a flat percentage of sales to the fair as a rental fee for their space on the grounds — 15 percent for food vendors, 18.5 percent for beer vendors. Sales are self-reported by booth owners each day, but spot checks of sales by fair employees help keep everyone honest.
In 1996, Larson became a Midway assistant and, four years later, took over the food and beverage department.
Pronto Pups and Tom Thumb
Walking through the fair, Larson weighed in on the corn-dog-vs.-Pronto-Pup debate. He’s a Pronto Pup guy. “It has a different quality that I like,” he said.
He’s a big foot-long hot dog fan, too. There are many of those booths, of course, but Larson favors the one near the Fine Arts building. Why? “It’s usually not so busy.”
Of the different types of mini-donuts, Larson likes the Tom Thumb brand; “In a blind taste test, I hope I’d be able to pick them out.”
And while there is plenty of cheese on a stick at the fair, his favorite is the guy with pepper-jack cheese by the Giant Slide.
Like many fairgoers, he’s steeped in tradition and tends to buy his favorite foods from the same booth, even when there are identical vendors not far away.
In addition to overseeing food and beverage at the fair, Larson became a Minnesota State Fair history expert, and often gives talks to groups about its evolution. It’s been in the same location since 1885, but times were bleak at the fair after World War II; the fair was canceled in 1945 and 1946, first because of war-time shortages and then because of a polio outbreak.
Struggling to recover in 1947, the fair got several families to make big investments in food and beer sales booths. That helped the fair recover, and over the next few decades those families continued to have monopolies. One family owned all the Pronto Pups; another had the foot-longs. One controlled beer sales.
Eventually there were calls to diversify ownership. The Legislature even got involved. Today, each booth is run by an independent franchisee, and has to follow strict licensing standards and renew its lease each year.
Technology and tastes continue to change, he said. In the early 1900s, dozens of church diners were the go-to dining option at the fair; now just two remain. There once were four diners around the outside of the 4-H building. Now there are none. “These older buildings don’t lend themselves to the modern improvements in plumbing and venting,” he said.
For years, Larson was the guy who approved the new foods that get so much publicity before and during the fair.
They get 60 or 70 applicants each year, from existing vendors and new folks hoping to stake their claim at the fair. The process starts in October and the list ultimately is narrowed to a couple dozen. There are usually five or six new vendors each year, he said.
For many years, Larson himself made the final call on the new foods, but he eventually realized his Scandinavian palette probably wasn’t the best judge of what’s the next big thing in fair food. So the past six years the job has been handled by a committee, whose members taste the proposed foods and make the decisions.
The big question was always: Will one of those new foods crack the Top 10 list and become a fair favorite?
Could happen, Larson says: He recalls a picture of the first Sweet Martha’s cookie booth in 1979 or 1980, with two kids working inside and no customers. Sweet Martha’s now has three locations and last year it grossed $4.73 million, by far the most of any vendor at the fair.
His go-to fair food
By midafternoon, Larson had actually only eaten one thing at the fair that day: a hot dog from the Peters Wieners booth in the Food Building.
“I guess it goes back to my childhood, always looking for the best value,” he said. “And I’ve gotten to know the family quite well over the years.”
By fair standards, it is a good value: $3 for a hot dog in a bun. It’s always been one of the best deals at the fair for bargain hunters, even if the definition of a deal changes over the years. A photo by the booth shows that in 1939 wieners at the same booth were 10 cents each.