The biggest change at this year’s State Fair has to be the transformation of the old St. Bernard’s Dining Hall into the new O’Gara’s Bar & Grill at the prime corner of Dan Patch and Cosgrove, just inside the main gate.
Traditional diner to spiffy Irish pub, and it happened in just a few months.
Lots of people have asked how this happened, considering major upheavals at the Fair generally occur at glacial pace and because many folks think that many Fair vendors are raking in money-on-a-stick.
The short answer: When the St. Paul Catholic church group pulled out after the closing of its longtime high school in June, the Fair opened the space for bids; 15 groups made very specific, detailed proposals.
O’Gara’s emerges as winner from 15 bids
The winners: Dan and Kris O’Gara, the third generation of the family to run the popular O’Gara’s Bar and Grill on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul — and they’d had previous Fair experience operating a small booth selling Reuben sandwiches and Irish food in the Food Building for eight years.
It was a tough, quick turn-around, with the renovation of the fair building costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and lasting until the Fair’s opening day. Other bidders might not be happy that this major Fair plum didn’t go their way, but one said: “If I didn’t get it, I’m glad they did.”
State Fair officials seem ecstatic at the results: a fresh new attraction right inside the gates, with bright neon signs, historic furnishings blended with flat-screen TVs, and lots of choices of beer and Irish ale.
With such a big investment in the Fair building, they’d like to keep it open longer than the 12 days of the fair, said Dan and Kris O’Gara, who are still running on adrenaline after the full-out sprint to get the building prepared while juggling operations at their St. Paul bar.
The fairgrounds does host other events during the spring, summer and fall, including car shows, and some Fair vendors are allowed to open for those.
The O’Garas also have been asked about private events, including wedding receptions, in the space.
So far, they say they’ve been too wrapped up with the opening — and too tired — to ask Fair officials about the additional days and events.
A traditional diner closes
For 52 years, St. Bernard’s — a Catholic parish on St. Paul’s North End — raised money for it high school by serving hot turkey sandwiches and other Fair diner fare in the wooden building, using parishioners and students as volunteer workers.
It wasn’t flashy or trendy, but the meat-and-potatoes menu attracted lots of folks who come looking for a traditional sit-down lunch or dinner, as a respite from the rest of the go-go-go of the Fair.
But financial problems led to the closing of the high school this year, and church officials decided it was time to give up the diner. “We lost a lot of the work force for staffing the diner,” said church secretary Kim Serva.
There was some back and forth — will we close it, maybe we won’t, yes we will — and the final decision didn’t come until Feb. 10, leaving the Fair about six months to make a major modification at the key fairgrounds location.
And Fair officials quickly decided they wanted a restaurant in that key space.
“It’s one of the ‘Hollywood and Vine’ locations at the fairgrounds,” said spokesperson Brienna Schuette. “It’s one of the most-seen spots, right inside one of the main gates and across from the Creative Activities building and near the bandshell.”
At the Fair, vendors with fixed buildings — like the church diners, Ye Old Mill, the french fry booths, the media booths and lots of others — own their buildings, but the Fair retains ownership of the land.
So in this case, St. Bernard’s sold the building to the Fair for an undisclosed amount, and the Fair then notified “about 20 currently licensed or registered food applicants who had expressed interest in having a large or larger food operation at the Fair,” said a memo prepared by Dennis Larson, its license administration manager.
Tight time frame
Fifteen of those groups made formal proposals in a very short time frame.
Kris O’Gara said they got the request for proposals in February and had to respond a month later, around St. Patrick’s Day, one of their busiest times of the year.
Like the others making proposals, they needed very specific plans about what they’d do with the building — the theme, plans for outfitting the space, the kinds of entertainment planned, which food and drink items they planned to sell, down to the weight of the food and the proposed price for each item.
Said Larson: “Each proposal had to have, at a minimum, a complete description of all menu offerings, thematic enhancements, visuals and elevation drawings of what they desired for the use of the space.”
The O’Garas have a thick, full-color booklet containing their proposal, down to the tiniest details. “It’s a full-fledged business plan,” Dan O’Gara said.
Other proposals included ethnic-themed operations (Mexican and German), along with many barbecue, burger, Tex-Mex and cowboy-themed proposals, Larson said.
All the proposals were reviewed by Fair sales staff members, who gave numerical scores on a point system for each element of the proposal. Four proposals came out on top.
“We then chose who we felt was the best overall for the site, and that was O’Gara’s Irish Pub,” Larson said.
Charlie Burrows — who runs the Axel’s food booth on the exterior of the Food Building, selling tenderloin beef bites and, new this year, fried cheeseburger sliders — had one of the non-winning proposals.
He proposed a piano bar restaurant, called Little Lucky’s, which would feature sing-alongs and requests by a piano player.
“I wasn’t super-happy about not being chosen, but I’ve known Danny [O’Gara] for years, and if I couldn’t get it, I’m glad he did,” said Burrows, who at one time was an owner of the Axel’s Bonfire Grill restaurants.
While there is word that other proposers are unhappy with the process, so far we’ve found no one to go on the record about that.
Big Fair presence can mean big bucks
There’s no doubt that a big Fair presence can mean big bucks for vendors. In 2008, we reported these gross sales from that summer’s Fair:
• Sweet Martha’s cookies, with two locations on the fairgrounds: $2 million in gross sales (before food costs, employee wages, insurance, building maintenance, and a 12.5 percent fee to the fair).
• Three cheese-curd stands: $1.2 million.
• Two french fries vendors: $775,000.
• Four mini-donut stands: $675,000.
• Corn Roast: $600,000.
Burrows, though, has no hard feelings and thinks the O’Garas have done an amazing job fixing up the place.
“The end results: the Fair apparently knew what they were doing because it turned out to be a very nice place,” he said.
It took a lot of money and work to make it a nice place.
Although the O’Garas and others had attended open houses at the diner and carefully looked through the building before making their proposals, there are always surprises when making renovations.
After starting some early demolition work, the O’Garas realized that the walls needed rebuilding.
“The only things left of the original building are the poles holding up the roof, and the roof,” Dan O’Gara said.
And they kept one of the kitchen ventilation hoods.
They started rebuilding July 4 and barely finished in time for the Aug. 26 Fair opener. “We were still working the night before; it’s not like you’ve got an option — if the work isn’t done, you hire nine more guys and work more hours,” he said.
The menu signs were still going up on the walls three days into the Fair.
One of the first assignments went to signmaker Marty Orensten, who came up with big, bright and loud neon signs for the building.
Many of the furnishings are recycled heirlooms: They installed an old-fashioned wooden arch — originally built in 1889 for a Duluth hotel; chandeliers came from the University of Minnesota’s old Pioneer building; and other lights are from the now-closed Minneapolis Grandma’s Restaurant.
Two of the bar tops had come out of the original O’Gara’s bar, when Dan’s late father, Tim, remodeled the bar in 1985. The bar tops had been around their house for decades and finally got put to good use. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t throw them out?” Dan asked Kris.
The Fair bar and grill serves corned beef and cabbage; fish and chips; beef steak; lots of sandwiches, burgers and a breakfast spread. And there are 10 varieties of beer on tap, including Irish ales.
A bagpipe player performs every afternoon, and there is entertainment on the stage every afternoon and evening.
The O’Garas wouldn’t give specifics on the costs of their Fair project, saying all the bills aren’t in yet, but they would says it will be at least “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
They said they’re very pleased with how Fair managers have built the 12-day event into a well-run, safe, enjoyable and family-friendly place — where vendors are willing to make large investments.
“They’ve done something right, if vendors like us are willing to put that kind of money into what, really, is a 12-day business, and feel it’s a worth-while risk,” Dan O’Gara said.
All vendors, including the O’Garas, sign one-year contracts , which would seem to raise questions about that big investment. But the O’Garas said they have a verbal understanding that they will have a long-term presence.
Fair spokesperson Schuette said there are no long-term verbal agreements with vendors, but said: “If vendors meet their requirements and pay their bills, they’ll be asked back each year.”