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Will there be enough workers for the State Fair?

With a shortage of workers across many industries, some fair vendors are behind pace on hiring for the fair, which is just under a month away.

Some Minnesota State Fair vendors are finding it hard to hire enough people to staff their booths.
Some Minnesota State Fair vendors are finding it hard to hire enough people to staff their booths.
MinnPost file photo by Joe Kimball

With less than a month until the State Fair begins, vendors are hiring staff to serve the droves of people who could turn out during the 12 days of the Great Minnesota Get-Together, which is back on (at least for now) after its 2020 cancellation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this year, as the pandemic hopefully wanes and the economy makes a comeback, some vendors are finding it harder than in past years to hire enough people to staff their booths.

That’s not necessarily surprising. Between the spring of 2019 and the spring of 2021, Minnesota’s labor force shrunk 1.6 percent, said Oriane Casale, the interim director of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Labor Market Information Office.

The reasons for the dropoff in employment are various: child care issues, lingering COVID-19 fears, a reconsideration of jobs and career for many workers, and an extra $300 per-week in unemployment benefits among them.

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All point to more difficult hiring conditions for employers, let alone the Fair, which a 2018 economic impact report found supports more than 12,000 jobs doing everything from selling tickets to frying corn dogs to operating Midway rides.

Hiring workers

Blue Barn, the popular State Fair food vendor known for concocting new Fair foods each year (this year it’s buffalo chicken “doughscuits”  — or “doughnut-style biscuits, shredded chicken, buffalo icing, bacon bits”) had hired about 60 percent of the workers it hopes to hire for the Fair. In a typical year, it hires between 130 and 140 workers, and by this time other years, they’d be around 85 percent to 90 percent staffed, said Stephanie Shimp, owner of the Blue Plate Restaurant Company, which runs Blue Barn. According to the company’s website, pay starts at $14 an hour.

The company held a job fair recently at its North Loop office, advertised on social media and on the restaurant group’s website. Four people showed up and not all were hireable, Shimp said.

Blue Barn is getting creative to find enough workers for the Fair. The company has reached out to high school sports teams, and Shimp said some have committed to sending players to work in order to raise money for their teams. It’s also exploring working with church and civic groups.

Shimp expects a busy fair, and said Blue Plate is planning ahead to have things ready to go for it, and will work to do some prep and pre-production work in the company’s restaurants.

“Not everyone has that luxury, and we picked our new food items so that [they] could also be manufactured ahead of time,” Shimp said.

Shimp said she’s noticed, at least anecdotally, a lot more teenagers and college kids jumping in to work than in years past, something that’s also reflected in national numbers as younger workers step in to fill workforce gaps: roughly a third of teens worked summer jobs this year, the highest level seen since 2008, NBC reported.

Giggles’ Campfire Grill, the Northwoods-themed home of walleye fries, duck bacon wontons, and this year, bison bites, had so far hired about half of what was full staffing last year —  more than 250 workers, co-owner Tim Weiss said last week.

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“Really the telling point is the next couple of weeks, we have been getting a few that have trickled in here and there, but cooks are my big worry right now,” Weiss said.

It’s a labor-intensive operation — most things are done by hand, including breading fish, Weiss said. Wages start at $11 an hour. And unlike in previous years, Giggles’ isn’t promising anyone a specific job ahead of time.

“We’re not promising any positions to anybody. We’re saying ‘you’ve got to be a team player, you have to do whatever, wherever we need you, whether that be cooking, prepping, cashiering, pouring beverages,” Weiss said.

As for Minnesota State Fair itself, earlier this month, it announced it had more than 1,000 jobs to fill doing everything from taking tickets to cleaning up.

“We usually do post job openings at this time of year but it would certainly be true to say that we still have many jobs to fill,” said Lara Hughes, marketing and communications supervisor, in an email. “We are 5 weeks out and are still hopeful that the Great Minnesota Get-Together will be the place to work for 12 days leading up to Labor Day!”

A big year

Other vendors are breathing a little easier when it comes to hiring.

Trisha Ketchmark, a manager at Mancini’s who runs hiring for the West Seventh steakhouse’s State Fair stand, says she hires between 50 and 60 people to work the Fair each year, and right now, she’s only looking for 10 to 12 more.

“I think I can get it done in a month,” she said. Ketchmark said she feels lucky that many Fair workers from previous years contacted her to express interest in working again. Still, Ketchmark said she’s heard other vendors and attractions express concern about hiring enough people — particularly if the Fair is busier than usual after a year off.

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Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar, perennially the highest-grossing State Fair vendor, is on track with hiring for the between 750 and 800 workers needed to staff the company’s three Fair cookie locations.

“Given the circumstances, we’re confident that we’ll have enough employees for the Minnesota State Fair,” hiring manager Katie Atlas said in an email, attributing the hiring success to a referrals-only hiring process, plus many repeat Fair workers.

Even as some vendors scramble to hire enough workers, many are bullish on the Fair’s chances of being busy this year — especially after a year off from the big, statewide get-together during the pandemic. While some Fair-themed events were held in the past year, vendors say Minnesotans are anxious to get back to the real thing.

“Based on that preview, we didn’t know what to expect, and it was bananas,” Ketchmark said.

“I think we’re going to have a strong Fair. There’s a lot of pent up demand, and I think people are really looking for ways to celebrate the every day and celebrate the small little triumphs,” Shimp said.