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How does the Minnesota State Fair do in hiring minority vendors? Nobody knows — there’s no data to figure it out

corn cob vendors
Minnesota State Fair
The Minnesota State Fair does not track the race, gender or ethnicity breakdown of its vendors, exhibitors or employees.

When the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar and other advocacy groups have protested at the Minnesota State Fair in recent years, they’ve focused primarily on a call to end police shootings. But Sam Sanchez, an organizer for the campaign, said they’ve also tried to highlight disparities in wealth between whites and people of color in Minnesota.

That includes asking questions about the fair itself, questions like, “Who has access to these things that create wealth?” Sanchez said.

For vendors, after all, the fair offers a shot at some eye-popping revenue and hundreds of thousands of potential customers. But the answer to Sanchez’s question is largely unknown. That’s because the fair does not track the race, gender or ethnicity breakdown of its vendors, exhibitors or employees, General Manager Jerry Hammer told MinnPost, and doesn’t use such information in its selection process.

While Hammer said the fair has recruiting efforts that try to bring in a wide array of vendors and employees, its first and foremost duty is to “do the best job we can for people who are attending the fair.”

“What we look at is product and experience and how things might fit into the fair,” Hammer said of picking food vendors.

The result, however, is a vendor selection process that has drawn some criticism from those who say it’s not doing enough to open doors for people of color — and that it could be unintentionally excluding them. 

“Choosing not to track [racial diversity] is sort of like putting your head in the sand,” said Rebecca Lucero, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Human Rights. “You’re choosing to not find out what’s going on and doing the best to support all of Minnesota. And that’s unfortunate.”

Selection and recruitment

To choose new vendors, the fair considers a list of criteria, including experience at other fairs, the appearance of a booth and whether there are similar products already at the fair. The opportunity to snag a license is rare. 

Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
Commissioner Rebecca Lucero
While nearly all vendors are on 12-day licenses that they have to apply for each year, Hammer said about 99.5 percent of vendors are renewed. The fair keeps sales numbers, but Hammer said staff would only step in if they’ve had “performance” problems, such as complaints from fairgoers, run-ins with health regulators or other operating issues. (Even businesses that own buildings are subject to 12-day licenses, Hammer said, because they can still be barred from selling food.)

When a spot opens, it’s usually because of outside circumstances, like a business owner moving away, dying or closing their restaurant. “There’s not much of a turnover,” Hammer said.

That leads to intense competition for available space. Sales exhibitions generally have more turnover, but they can also be competitive. 

Hammer said the fair, a quasi-state agency, is legally barred by Minnesota’s human rights laws from using race, gender or ethnicity to pick vendors and can’t require applicants to divulge that information either. He also said the fair could ask people to volunteer their race, gender or ethnicity, but opts not to, because not everyone would answer. “I’m not sure we would ask a voluntary question that would give us data that’s not complete,” he said.

Still, Hammer said the fair works “very hard” to make sure it recruits vendors and hires employees that represent the state. He said the fair advertises through “minority media,” does extensive outreach and works with nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Clubs for hiring. Because Minneapolis Public Schools is once again starting after Labor Day this year, he said that may bring a surge of racially diverse students. (The fair ends on Labor Day.)

Jerry Hammer
Jerry Hammer
Hammer pointed to stories that he said show the fair has been successful in its approach. One example is Funky Grits, a new booth operated by the Minneapolis restaurant, which is owned by Jared Brewington, who is black. Another is the Indigenous Food Lab, a daylong program on Sunday run by chef Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe better known as the Sioux Chef. Sherman has a best-selling book and a James Beard Award. The fair also has a Hmong Minnesota Day, Hammer said.

In 2016, the fair did conduct what they call an “informal” internal survey of exhibitors and found about 10 percent of the fair’s “commercial exhibitors and vendors are licensed to minorities.” At the same time, in an email to MinnPost, the fair’s media team said the survey “involved no questions or collection of data from exhibitors.”

A state report published last year says 6.3 percent of businesses in the state have owners that identify as black, African-American, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Latino or “other,” despite representing 17.4 percent of the population. Another survey using similar data found only 7 percent of firms in the Twin Cities with employees were owned by minorities, despite representing 22 percent of the population. The largest sector by far of minority owned businesses with employees in Minnesota was accommodation and food service.

“We go to great lengths to make sure everybody’s included and you see that at the fair,” Hammer said. 

A fair fair?

Lucero, the state’s Human Rights commissioner, said Hammer is correct in saying anti-discrimination laws prevent the fair from explicitly hiring or turning away a vendor because of race or other legally protected characteristics of an applicant. 

But she said the fair “absolutely can consider race, ethnicity or gender as one of many factors in a holistic hiring process.”

Lucero also said while an application and data tracking system that leaves out race can appear neutral, it can also lead to unintended consequences by presenting barriers to some more than others. For example, the nearly automatic renewal process for vendors could be leaving in a disproportionate number of white-owned businesses as the state grows more diverse, she said.

But to find out if that’s true, they would have to ask people to voluntarily divulge their backgrounds, something she said is routinely done in the vending and hiring world. 

“It’s very common for employers, for anyone who works with vendors,” Lucero said. “Any vendor that operates with the state or city would provide information about what the makeup of their workforce is. It’s just so common for that request to come to vendors.”

Unemployment rates and other economic markers for black, indigenous and other minority groups in Minnesota lag far behind that of whites, which elected officials across the state have sought to fix. State agencies have worked to increase the number of minority-owned businesses that win government contracts. There are also state and federal programs to encourage people to hire contractors run by women, minorities and others, such as Minnesota’s Targeted Group, Economically Disadvantaged and Veteran-Owned Small Business Procurement Program.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission, which selects vendors at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, participates in the Targeted Group program, and the commission also must participate in the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program to be eligible for federal funding on certain construction projects and concessions, said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the commission.

Lucero said the fair could set goals for racial diversity in its vendors and workforce and create a strong cache of candidates. “It really is about creating a strong pipeline and you’re never going to be able to create a diverse pool if 99.5 percent of vendors get automatically renewed each year,” she said.

A 10 percent rate of exhibits run by non-white people still would not reflect the demographics of the state or the Twin Cities, Lucero said.

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, a Minneapolis DFLer who has championed equity in the state’s workforce, said he’d like to know which parts of the state vendors are coming from as a way to see if the Twin Cities is represented. He also said the high renewal rate offers little opportunity for new people to make a mark at the fair.

“Even when people say it’s neutral on its face, it could have a disparate impact,” Champion said of the fair’s practices.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 08/27/2019 - 12:23 pm.

    How many vendors of color get turned away each year? If nobody of color applies for licenses, how can there be discrimination?

    • Submitted by Rory Kramer on 08/27/2019 - 03:07 pm.

      The article lays out the criteria the fair board uses in selecting new vendors, at the same time saying that 99.5% of licenses for vendors get renewed every year. Is the fair board supposed to use affirmative action in granting a license/space to a vendor that has no experience in having a stand at a major festival or running a business to those of color/other ethnic backgrounds to make everyone feel good inside?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/27/2019 - 03:58 pm.

        Why should “99.5%” of the vendors’ licenses get renewed every year?

        • Submitted by Greg Smith on 08/28/2019 - 01:58 pm.

          They are successful??
          Maybe sweet Martha should be removed, good luck with that.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/29/2019 - 09:20 am.

            So they’re entitled to be there?

            How do we know someone else wouldn’t be more successful? Selling snack food at the State Fair strikes me as a fairly simple business model, even for, ahem, a “vendor with no experience.”

            Let me ask the question a different way: does it make you “feel good inside” to exclude people of color?

      • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 08/27/2019 - 04:26 pm.

        The lower the rate at which licenses turn over, the more the vendor population will reflect the historical condition of a non-diverse vendor demographic and a smaller community of entrepreneurs of color/ethnicity, rather than present conditions. In other words, it’s the opposite of affirmative action; it’s an informal but classical barrier to entry to entrepreneurs of color/ethnicity that bears no relation to whether they are capable of running a business or offer a product that will be succeed in the marketplace of the fair.

      • Submitted by lisa miller on 08/27/2019 - 04:47 pm.

        Pray tell, how does one get experience running a fair stand if there is very low turnover? The point it why should a few for many years get to have that spot? Especially if its a big money earner. Perhaps at least having a drawing for open spots or limiting small vendors to a 3 yr run and then having to draw for the spot. There are plenty of vendors from under represented groups that have experience running businesses. In the past, there has been a lot of favoritism in who gets a stand, why not change the process. This is what demonstrators should focus on vs standing out on the avenue.

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 08/27/2019 - 06:46 pm.

        Why jump to the conclusions that minority vendors who’d apply have no experience in running a stand ? Are you saying people who originally started some of the more popular stalls all had qualifications from the Culinary Institute of America before they could hawk fries or cookies at the fair.

        These are valid questions being raised. The State Fair is a quasi govt. agency that basically has absolutely no openings for minorities due to historical leases ? Really ? Are you aware of history and minority disenfranchisement in history ?

        The State Fair should either expand or stop giving additional locations to existing vendors and open up its books and processes. Just like any other Govt agency.

        I’m not sure why the MDHR is taking such a passive stand.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/27/2019 - 03:21 pm.

    Seems to me that the racists here would be the ones counting the heads and their color.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/27/2019 - 04:03 pm.

      Is it racism for a potential government contractor to note that it is a “minority-owned business?”

      Asking for a friend.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 08/27/2019 - 06:47 pm.

      Sure, in your version of “history” of the 1960’s, they were handing out State Fair spots on an equal basis.

  3. Submitted by JUDITH MONSON on 09/01/2019 - 02:03 pm.

    If, as Hammer states, “we go to great lengths to make sure everybody’s included,” why is he the only person who “for sure” seems to know that?

    It isn’t as though the State Fair management doesn’t know how to do arithmetic or data collection. Check your local newspaper (who also own a booth) on any of the 12 days of the Fair for exact attendance numbers. Mind you, these are not estimates. Included are boasts of “record-setting” attendance days, whether that was “yesterday” or in a given prior year.

    To be honest, the Fair itself is a mostly “white only” attendee activity, run by white male management and an all-white Board (yes, there may be a token woman or black included from time to time). Next time you attend the Fair, take some photos of the crowds around you, and do a count. How many whites? How many blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans? If you do a few quick calculations, does your minority percentage add up to or exceed 17% (according to Orenstein, the minority representation in the state of Minnesota)? So, if these “old white guys” declare a “Hmong Day,” shouldn’t we all be grateful? Would even a few not agree that, in substance, this designation is both patronizing and pandering?

    But back to the minority business issue. As one previous commentator notes, if 99+% of Fair business licenses are renewed each year (which presumably are mostly white), what’s the likelihood of minority businesses being added any time soon? Of course, if you’re white management, and the current white businesses are a familiar known quantity, who would want to change that? But until we have precise data, who’s going to know? The only thing to “hang your hat on” is Manager Hammer’s personal assurance that “we go to great lengths.”

    Footnote: I’m white, have lived several blocks from the State Fair for 45 years. To quote the State Farm Insurance TV ad, “we know a thing or two.”

  4. Submitted by Carl Brookins on 09/01/2019 - 03:06 pm.

    Creating and running a booth at a fair is about the same as creating a temporary small business anywhere. It may look easy, but it isn’t. A food service is even more problematical due to health regs. One way independent vendors might qualify themselves and learn whether it’s something they want to do is to start with the county and other fairs that abound in the region. If you create an attractive well-serviced booth that attracts crowds, you will get noticed by the state fair people. Yes, vendors do go directly to the state fair but it has been my observation that most are operating successful businesses elsewhere. We seem to be a society that loves instant solutions to even the most complex problems, but successful solutions often require longer, more thoughtful answers.

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