New foods and exhibits are a big part of everyone’s State Fair fun, but so is the reliability of old haunts and the once-a-year treats that we find in the same place on the fairgrounds — year after year.
We know where the mini-donuts will be, the giant slide, the horse barn, the pronto pups and the foot-longs.
So I was shocked — shocked, I tell you — to find the World’s Greatest French Fries stand was no longer operating in the red and white building at the corner of Dan Patch and Underwood. It had been run there for decades by Mark Andrew, the former Hennepin County commissioner and a past DFL Party chair.
In its place was San Felipe Tacos, which previously had been in much smaller quarters inside the Food Building since 2008.
Also gone this year was the nearby s’mores stand, another operation run by Andrew since the Nixon administration.
Andrew, it turns out, has retired from the fair after a 50-year run.
More vendor changes this year
His departure is a relatively unusual occurrence for the fair’s food and beverage lineup. If vendors have a successful product, they tend to stay, and stay. It’s usually when someone retires, or dies — or for some other reason gives up on the 12 days of crowds and heat and grease — that new space opens up for new entrepreneurs.
But this year, following the COVID-canceled 2020 and COVID-lower-attendance of 2021, there’s been more turnover of vendors than usual, said Danielle Dullinger, the fair’s new food and beverage manager.
“It’s pretty rare for a building to come available, but this year, (the french fry building) became available and it was a win for us, because we were able to move someone out of the food building and give them more space,” she said.
That “someone” is the San Felipe Tacos stand, owned by Sarah and Michael Wentzien. They sell fish tacos and other Mexican fare and their success led to long lines and backups in the Food Building. Happy to get larger fair space, they refurbished the building but kept the iconic rotating sign on the roof which Andrew had installed in 1995 for $29,000. It used to feature a rotating pack of french fries, but now has the San Felipe Taco name.
Andrew, who opened the s’mores stand in 1973 while he was still in college, said he was nostalgic and a little sad about the transition and hadn’t planned to attend the fair this year. It was too painful, he said, to go back for the first time without a stand, after half a century of working there.
He’s 72, and last year was rough at the fair, he said, with lower attendance and some supply chain problems. Ketchup didn’t arrive until two days before the opening, and then it came in hard-to-manage packaging. Also, there was the retirement of his long-time manager, Patrice Dvorak.
“So we decided, we’re done,” he said.
Meet the new boss
But he did finally agree to come to the fair Thursday, and for the first time met Sarah Wentzien at his old booth — her new one.
They chatted about the great location, and the iconic rotating sign, and how tough it was last year, after record-setting numbers in 2019. “I feel better; good people have taken over,” Andrew said.
Then Larry Abdo, who has run the Big Fat Bacon booth next door for years and has been a fair vendor for 50 years, wandered over to talk with Andrew and Wentzien.
Abdo said he’s seen fair vendor transitions for decades, and that these days “the fair is very fair,” when working with licensees. “They’ve made this into a very distinctive and enjoyable fair for everyone. If state government was run like the State Fair, we’d all be better off.”
New root beer, and more
Another ownership change comes with the distinctive-looking Root Beer Barrels. The previous long-time owners had four small stands around the fair, but gave up their license and new operator Erika Rustad now has built two new barrels and uses root beer made by Lift Bridge Brewery of Stillwater.
“We’re learning as we go,” said Tim Arcand, Rustad’s cousin and the Bridge ’n Barrel manager. The first day, root beer concentrate wasn’t flowing well through the dispenser, but the brewery quickly reconfigured the formula and now all’s well, he said.
With San Felipe Tacos leaving the Food Building, Dullinger and fair officials were able to reallocate space there for other vendors, leading to one of the biggest fair food vendor influxes in years.
“It was a massive puzzle to put together,” Dullinger said.
In the building, a pizza shop owner retired and the Cinnamon Rolls vendor died, so space was rearranged for new entry Nautical Bowls; Sara’s Tipsy Pies expanded for the second time, and iPierogi went into Sara’s old space. Herbivorous Butcher came in and Soul Bowl moved into the vacated San Felipe Taco spot.
Another big food addition this year is the first Hmong food vendor, Union Hmong Kitchen, in the International Bazaar, after Island Noodles moved to a location near the Midway.
Balancing old and new
Years ago, changes to the fair policy on succession were made when a few families controlled many of the food concessions on the fairgrounds for generations. Now, when someone dies or retires the fair license doesn’t automatically transfer to an heir or designated survivor.
“If a license holder can no longer operate, the license is canceled and the children, or someone else, has to register, like anyone else, and we evaluate very thoroughly. It has happened that we transfer it, but there’s no guarantee,” she said.
“We want to have a balance of the classics and things people love, but also give new opportunities, which can come up when someone cancels,” Dullinger said.