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5 things you learn as a first-time State Fair vendor

Lee Branding

Lee Branding

More people attended the 2018 Minnesota State Fair than ever before, something you might have realized as you shuffled snail-paced down Dan Patch Avenue or waited in an especially epic Sweet Martha’s line.

But all we had to do was walk, eat stick foods, and avoid getting heat stroke. Imagine firing up the fryers and serving those record-breaking crowds yourself. Imagine doing it when this is your very first time as a fair vendor.

Now that the dust has settled, the miracles have been birthed, and these brave first-timers have had a month back in business-as-usual mode, we thought we’d ask a few of them to relive the chaos and tell us what they learned.

5. If at first you don’t succeed, apply, apply again.

This is the Great Minnesota Get-Together, not the Just-Okay Minnesota Get-Together, and they don’t let any old schmuck in. “The State Fair is extremely hard to get into,” says Anchor Coffee House co-owner Brad Atkinson, who first submitted a vendor application when Anchor got its start as a mobile coffee cart in 2015. “They’re very detail-oriented in how they choose what they choose—it’s a very well-run machine.”

That means not even Stine Aasland, founder and CEO of Nordic Waffles and Norway’s one-time female entrepreneur of the year, was approved right away. “From the moment that I came to the U.S. and I came to Minnesota, people would tell me about the Minnesota State Fair,” Aasland says. “That became my dream: One day, we’re going to get into the fair.”

That was about three and a half years ago. She’d created a veritable waffle empire in her native country—more than 700 stores stocked her brand—but she points out that number-wise, almost half of Norway’s population comes to the fair over the course of 12 days. Fair organizers need newbies to prove they can handle that high volume, that they’re professional, and that they have a unique product that’ll be a hit. (Aasland and co. finally got that chance when they appeared at Super Bowl Live on Nicollet Avenue earlier this year.)

4. Preparation plus collaboration.

It’s not hurry up and wait, it’s wait, then hurry up. After trying for years to make it to the fair, Nordic Waffles learned they were in about three months before opening day. Atkinson says Anchor got the official go-ahead one day before the new fair foods were announced.

From there, life becomes an all-out fair-planning frenzy.

“The funny thing that people don’t actually see is that there’s a lot of buildup time, and then takedown time after,” Atkinson explains. “There’s a small army behind the scenes that puts things together.” His first step was to assemble that army: With a mere six people working at their White Bear Lake shop and four or five more who help out on the trailer in the summer, staffing two shifts a day with 10 people meant hiring about another 40 people.

They also started putting systems in place to streamline service, partnering with the local brewery—which shut down half of its beer production—to mass-produce coldbrew for the first time.

3. Someone here knows more than you.

As a first-timer, you’ve merely adopted the fair—others were born in it, molded by it. Take Matt Ribar, who’s behind Duke’s Poutine: His dad, Brad, owns the iconic Corn Roast Stand. “He literally grew up at the fair,” Atkinson says.

It made Matt an unbeatable resource for Anchor’s crew as they planned their fair debut. The tips they got were crucial—for example, the initial plan was to offer most of their roughly 40-item menu. Ribar’s take: There’s no way that’s going to work.

“The fair itself, that network—everybody wants everybody to do well,” Atkinson says. “It’s kind of its own little family. If you show up and you don’t have something, you can very likely turn around and somebody will have it and help you out.”

2. The bad news is you’re probably never fully ready.

How was Atkinson feeling going into day one? Entirely set, or a little bit, “Well, guess we’ll see what happens”?

“Probably a little more of the latter,” he admits. “The question was: The systems that we’ve put in place, that we essentially put on steroids, will they work as smoothly as we think they will?”

There’s really no way to know. Because the fair vets rookies carefully, there aren’t a lot of historical catastrophes, and in Anchor’s case, it was pretty smooth sailing. But in talking to other vendors, he did hear a few near-horror stories. Sara Hayden of Sara’s Tipsy Pies told Atkinson they’d sell out of all of their product in a day, which meant staying up all night, every night, getting things ready for the next morning.

Sara’s scenario has to feel at least a little relatable to the Nordic Waffles crew—looking at their line, you’d have thought people were queuing up for Beatles tickets. “What happened at the fair was way beyond our imagination... we never expected those sort of sales.” Aasland says. “We cooked waffles as fast as we could, but I think at one point we had 400 people in line.”

It wasn’t as miserable as it sounds: “I’ve always been impressed—Americans are good at being in line because you’re a very social people, you talk to each other and you have fun.”

1. It’s going to be okay. No, really.

“It might not be the Picasso you planned on, but you’re gonna have something out there,” Atkinson says of the year one experience. Things weren’t perfect this time around—they didn’t have a canopy ready, for example, and this was a rainy fair—but overall his biggest surprise was that things went as well as they did.

“We learned a lot about the operation and how we can maximize even more, everything from education about the waffles to menu changes,” adds Aasland. They’ll make one big switch that’ll interest anyone who wants a look at the fair from the vendor side: hiring someone to oversee their fair operation.

“For us, it’s a full-time position. If anybody out there wants to operate it, we are looking for that person.” Aasland laughs, before adding: “I’m throwing a job opening into this interview.”