While new foods and exhibits are an important part of State Fair fun for everyone, so is the reliability and familiarity of old haunts as well as the once-a year treats we find at the fairgrounds year after year.
We know exactly where the mini-donuts, the giant slide and horse barn will be located, as well as the location of the pronto puppies, the foot-longs, and the horse barn.
It was shocking to me, I must say, that the World’s Greatest French Fries Stand was no longer in operation at the corner Dan Patch and Underwood. It was run by Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner who is also a former chair of the DFL Party.
San Felipe Tacos took its place. It was previously located in smaller quarters within the Food Building.
The nearby stand for s’mores, which Andrew has run since the Nixon administration, was also gone.
Andrew has, as it turns out after a 50 year run, retired from the fair.
This year There were more vendor changes
His departure is not a common occurrence in the fair’s food- and beverage program. Vendors who have a product that is successful tend to stay. This is usually when someone dies, retires or leaves the business.
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.
She said, “It is rare for a building that becomes available. But this year (the french fries building) was available. It was a win for our company, as we were able move someone out the food building and gave them more space.”
Sarah and Michael Wentzien own the San Felipe Tacos stand. Their success has led to long lines at the Food Building and back-ups for fish tacos. They renovated the building to increase fair space. However, they kept the iconic rotating sign that Andrew installed on the roof in 1995 for $29,000. The rotating pack of french fries used to be featured on the roof, but it now bears the San Felipe Taco name.
Andrew, who started the s’mores stand in 1973 when he was still in college said that he was nostalgic, sad about the transition, and didn’t plan to attend this year’s fair. After half a century of work there, it was too difficult to return for the first time.
He is 72 years old and said last year was difficult at the fair due to lower attendance and supply chain issues. Ketchup arrived two days after the opening and was in difficult-to-manage packaging. Patrice Dvorak, his long-time manager, was also retired.
He said, “So we decided. We’re done.”
Meet your new boss
He did eventually agree to attend the fair on Thursday and met Sarah Wentzien for the first-time at his old booth — the one she now uses.
They talked about the location and the iconic rotating sign. Andrew also discussed how difficult it was to get there after the record-breaking numbers of 2019. Andrew stated, “I feel better. Good people have takenover.”
Larry Abdo, who runs the Big Fat Bacon booth right next door for many years and has been an fair vendor for over 50 years, walked over to speak with Andrew and Wentzien.
Abdo stated that he has seen fair vendor transitions over the years and that today’s fair is very fair when working with licensees. They’ve made it a unique and enjoyable fair for all. We’d all be happier if state government were run like the State Fair.
A new root beer and more
The distinctive Root Beer Barrels are another example of a change in ownership. Four stands were owned by the previous owners, who had been around for a long time. Erika Rustad, the new operator, has now built two new barrels. She uses Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater to make root beer.
Rustad’s cousin Tim Arcand is the Bridge ‘n Barrrel manager. “We’re learning as they go,” he said. Root beer concentrate didn’t flow well through the dispenser the first day. However, the brewery quickly reformulated the formula and all is well now, he stated.
Dullinger and fair officials were able, after San Felipe Tacos left the Food Building’s Food Building, to reallocate space for other vendors. This resulted in one of the largest fair food vendor influxes since years.
Dullinger stated, “It was an enormous puzzle to put together.”
The building was home to a retired pizza shop owner and a Cinnamon Rolls vendor. Space was rearranged for new entry Nautical bowls. Sara’s Tipsy Pies expanded again and iPierogi moved into Sara’s old space. Soul Bowl took over the San Felipe Taco spot, and Herbivorous Butcher moved in.
Union Hmong Kitchen is another major food addition to the International Bazaar. This comes after Island Noodles relocated to a new location near the Midway.
Balancing new and old
Many of the fairgrounds’ food concessions were owned by a handful of families for many generations. This led to changes in the fair policy regarding succession. The fair license does not automatically pass to an heir or designated survivor if someone dies or retires.
“If a license holder is unable to operate, the license will be canceled. The children or another person must register as any other person. We evaluate each case very carefully. She said that although it has happened, we have not always been able to transfer it.
Dullinger stated, “We want to balance the classics and things people like, but also provide new opportunities that can be created when someone cancels.”
Joe Kimball, a writer and State Fair enthusiast, was shocked to discover that the World’s Greatest French Fries had closed down. It’s still there, but fish tacos are now available. This is just one of the many vendor transitions this year at the fair.