Behind The Counter: New Foods and the People Making Them at the State Fair

August 28, 2017

Scrumptious, luscious, sophisticated, tantalizing, hearty, playful, tasty… there just aren’t enough adjectives to adequately describe the symphony of tasty treats that could be yours at the Minnesota State Fair this year or as we call it — the Great Minnesota Get Together!

Currently, there are about 300 concession vendors with over 500 foods. (Check out the amazing Food Finder on the MN State Fair website.)

Maybe you are a traditionalist and can’t wait for a bucket of Sweet Martha’s Chocolate Chip Cookies and a cold glass of Minnesota milk! Or maybe you have a more adventurous spirit and are looking forward to trying something totally new and over-the-top!

To get a little closer, look at some of the new foods. We went directly to the source and spoke with several vendors whose innovative creations made the 2017 list of rookie concoctions.


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As a young boy, whose family visited the Minnesota State Fair every year, Pat Mancini never dreamed that someday, he and his son would end up with an item on the 2017 list of new foods at the fair.

Pat’s father opened Mancini’s Char House in 1968. Mancini’s has long been regarded as one of the top Steak houses in the Twin Cities. Five years ago, they decided to take their brand to the Minnesota State Fair.

In 2013, Mancini’s Al Fresco took over a building that had been occupied by another vendor for 40 years previous.

“We went into the fair with our Mancini brand, which is known for great food,” Pat said. “We didn’t want to mess that part up. However, we learned that the fair is not the restaurant business. A lot of the fair-goers want the exotic or unusual food concoction, so we adjusted some menu items to add more flare.”

Mancini’s is excited about their newest creation. Pat’s son, Nick, also a chef, wanted to create an Italian style Cubano sandwich. They are calling it the Italian Bomba.  They say it “will make your taste buds do the Bomba!”

Pat speaks about the fair with passion and with nostalgia.

“The fair has signified the end of summer for me ever since I was a kid,” he said. “I love the fact that it celebrates the best of Minnesota, from 4-H farm kids to well-known eateries and the best in Minnesota music.”


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This will be the tenth year, Michael and Sarah Wentzien and their crew at San Felippe Taco will be serving up some of the most creative and upscale tacos around.

Fair-goers will soon be lining up again to get their fill of all things taco – from the fish tacos they introduced their first year as vendors to the Northwoods BBQ taco and this year’s culinary delight—the Deviation Stout Steak Taco Naan.

When asked about how their menu has changed over the years, Mike says they are always thinking about new food items made with high-quality ingredients. They try hard to create menu items that will have staying power versus a “one-year wonder.”

Both the fish taco and the Northwoods BBQ taco have been hits since introduced. The whole crew at San Felippe Tacos was thrilled to be named the 2015 Best Food at the Fair. Not every good idea has turned out to be a winner, however. Mike quipped, “the fried ice cream, not so much.  We’ve replaced it with a fabulous deep-fried cheesecake.”

Mike had been wanting to create a steak taco for quite some time. As a teen, he cooked at the Iowa State Fair using a beer marinade and remembered getting good reviews. But he knew that no ordinary beer marinade would do.  So he teamed up with the folks at Modist Brewing.

“I was talking with their head brewer, Keigan Knee,” he said. “Keigan is very thoughtful on flavor profiles and how to think about the end experience… The flavors within Deviation 004 have Mexican Dark Chocolate, vanilla bean with cinnamon and red chili smolder.”

Just to take it over the top they are wrapping the whole thing in warmed Naan bread.  And that is the story of the Deviation Stout Steak Taco.


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The big hit from Lancer Catering last year was a unique one: Spam Sushi. And staff may have wondered how it would top that this time around.

Lancer owner Mark Kramer thinks he’s found just the trick: Memphis totchos will be served at Snack House and Swine & Spuds will be served at the vendor of the same name. Both Snack House and Swine & Spuds will be located in the Warner Coliseum.

By January, staff’s ideas were taking shape and being tested and tweaked for this year’s fair. They knew they wanted to do a totcho (think tater tot and nacho) with bacon and a little inspiration from Elvis. In the end, peanut butter and banana came together with bacon and tater tots for the Memphis totcho.

But the team didn’t stop there.

Operating out of the Warner Coliseum, near many of the livestock barns, their minds went to a hearty meat and potatoes kind of dish. They settled on Swine & Spuds: bacon-wrapped pork belly and mashed potato croquettes, all served on a stick with a choice of homestyle gravy, Korean Buglogi barbecue sauce, or sweet chili sauce.

Lancer’s Mark loves the excitement of getting ready for the fair. Listening to his description of the two weeks leading up to opening day was almost like a seeing a time-lapsed video with the addition of more and more vendors, workers, food, energy and creativity being layered in each day. He even used the word “magical” in describing the build up to the fair. His passion for the meticulous preparation that goes into making sure everything is ready, plus reconnecting with other vendors and then customers was undeniable.


None of these brand new fair foods would be possible without the people bringing it all together.

Dennis Larson, Concessions Food Manager, but affectionately known by his staff at the fair as “the food guy” explained that written proposals for new food items start coming in by March. Almost all of the proposals come from incumbent vendors.

The proposals include a description of the menu item, ingredients, photographs, price and sometimes even a sample. From the 85-90 entries, a committee of five narrows it down to the best of the best, considering both the individual item and the overall product mix of new foods.

The number of new foods varies each year. In a very competitive process, five new vendors were selected from a field of about 375 applicants.

“We are looking for people who have a proven track record. The State Fair is not the place to practice,“ Larson said.

Dennis sees a trend to include healthier options, including vegetarian items, gluten free options (spicy Thai noodles) and a resurgence of breakfast items.

While their foods might be as varied as the customers walking through the fair gates on opening day, the vendors all share an amazing passion for their food, their customers and the total fair experience.

So as you sample all the latest and greatest new foods and maybe even go back to some of your perennial favorites, take a moment to speak with the people behind the counter.


Here’s a handy list of this year’s new foods at the 2017 Minnesota State Fair, which runs Thursday, Aug. 24 to Monday, Sept. 4 at the state fairgrounds in St. Paul Minnesota. See everything offered at this year’s fair at


Bacon Fluffernutter: Grilled cinnamon bun sandwich with a bacon, peanut butter and marshmallow cream filling. The Sandwich Stop, west side of Clough Street between Carnes & Judson avenues.

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Bacon Up Pup: A Belgian waffle served on a stick with bacon in the batter, dipped in chocolate, drizzled with maple syrup, and topped with whipped cream and bacon. Granny’s Kitchen Fudge Puppies, east side of Underwood Street between Dan Patch and Carnes avenues, outside the Food Building.

Duck Bacon Wontons: Duck bacon, grilled sweet corn and cream cheese combined inside deep-fried crescent-shaped wontons and served with dipping sauce. Giggles’ Campfire Grill, at the southeast corner of Lee Avenue and Cooper Street at The North Woods.

Memphis Totchos:  Sliced bananas and sautéed bacon over tater tots, topped with peanut sauce. Snack House, in the Warner Coliseum, south concourse.


Bowl O’ Dough: Four different flavors of raw cookie dough (no worries, its safe to eat)– Brownie Batter Swirl, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (gluten-free), European Cookie Butter and Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake with Blueberries, served with a side of sea salt-flavored ice milk. Blue Moon Dine in Theater, northeast corner of Carnes Avenue and Chambers Street.

Cherry Bombs: Red licorice dipped in batter, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Vegie Fries, north side of Dan Patch Avenue between Underwood and Cooper streets.

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Chocolate Popover with Peanut Butter Spread: Hot out-of-the-oven chocolate popover with a side of peanut butter spread. LuLu’s Public House, West End Market, south of the Schilling Amphitheater.

Mini Sconuts:  Buttermilk scone holes filled with chocolate, marshmallow and Nutella, deep-fried and topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. (gluten-free). French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, north side of Carnes Avenue between Nelson and Underwood streets.

Maple Cream Nitro Cold Press Coffee: Locally sourced heavy cream and maple syrup in a cold brew coffee infused with nitrogen. Farmers Union Coffee Shop, on the north side of Dan Patch Avenue between Cooper and Cosgrove streets.

Honey Puffs (Loukamades): Deep-fried dough balls, crispy outside and sweet inside, tossed in a sweet syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Dino’s Gyros, north side of Carnes Avenue between Nelson and Underwood streets.

Sweet Corn Blueberry Éclair:  Kernza® flour éclair filled with sweet corn pastry cream and topped with blueberry glaze. At Farmers Union Coffee Shop, located on the north side of Dan Patch Ave. between Cooper & Cosgrove streets.

Sweet’s Churros:  Sweet potato, cinnamon and nutmeg kneaded into a traditional churro dough, deep-fried and served with a side of chocolate or maple brown sugar sauce or whipped cream. Potato Man and Sweety, west side of Liggett Street between Carnes and Judson avenues.

Pie’n the Sky Malt & Sundae: A sweet and tart mix of crunchy, spiced “airplane” cookies and lemon curd, topped with dark chocolate drizzle and served vanilla ice cream as a sundae or malt. Dairy Goodness Bar, Dairy Building, south wall.


Cheesy Nacho Corn on the Cob: Roasted corn on the cob lightly coated with crushed Doritos corn chips and nacho cheese. Texas Steak Out, west side of Underwood Street between Lee and Randall avenues.

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Deviation Stout Steak Taco Naan: Steak marinated in Modist Deviation 004- Mexican Dark Chocolate Stout beer, grilled and topped with shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, queso fresco, cilantro lime and jalapeño ranch sauces, and warmed naan flatbread. San Felipe Tacos, Food Building, east wall.

Sonoran Sausage: ONE.BAD.DOG: Tex-Mex sausage stuffed with pepper jack cheese, wrapped in bacon, baked and served on a cornmeal-dusted bun with fresh corn salsa and a drizzle of avocado ranch sauce. Sausage Sister & Me, Food Building, east wall.


Double Dose of Pork Belly: 100 percent ground pork belly burger topped with crisp smoked pork belly, pepper jack cheese, coleslaw and pickled onions, served on a toasted bun. RC’s BBQ, north side of West Dan Patch Avenue between Liggett and Chambers streets.

Italian Bomba Sandwich:  Beer-braised pork shoulder with prosciutto cotto ham, fontina cheese, giardiniera (Italian relish) and aioli on a grilled ciabatta roll. Mancini’s al Fresco, on the north side of Carnes Avenue between Nelson and Underwood streets.

Slow-Roasted Pork Mole Tamale: Fresh corn tamale with slow-roasted pork, mole coloradito sauce and black bean and pineapple relish. Tejas Express, in mole coloradito sauce and black bean and pineapple relish. Tejas Express, in the Garden, north wall.

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Fall Guy Breakfast Panini: Capicola and scrambled egg topped with white cheddar on ciabatta. The Hideaway Speakeasy, in the Veranda, Grandstand upper level, northwest section.

Breakfast Buddy Bowl: Waffle bowl filled with hash browns, maple syrup, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese and bacon, and topped with a biscuit, country sausage gravy and green onions. LuLu’s Public House, West End Market, south of the Schilling Amphitheater.

Wild Bill’s Breakfast Bake: Scrambled eggs, roasted chicken and chorizo sausage baked and topped with salsa and a mix of lettuce, pickled red onions and cilantro. The Blue Barn, West End Market, south of the History & Heritage.

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Mobster’s Caviar: Cream cheese dip with crab meat, green onions, fresh red pepper and water chestnuts, served with whole wheat flatbread crackers. At The Hideaway Speakeasy, located in the Veranda, Grandstand upper level, northwest section.

Pizzarito: Flour tortilla filled with pepperoni, Italian sausage, risotto, mozzarella and marinara, coated with garlic butter, parmesan and Italian spices, baked and served with a side of marinara. Green Mill, east side of Cooper Street between Randall and Wright avenues, at Family Fair at Baldwin Park.

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Brown Ale and Onion-Gouda Tipsy Pie: Onions caramelized in Lift Bridge Brewery’s Chestnut Hill Brown Ale with smoked Gouda cheese, baked in a pie crust, topped with an onion sugar and drizzled with a sweet beer glaze. Sara’s Tipsy Pies, Food Building, south wall.


Swing Dancer: Honey smoked salmon, cucumbers, capers and cream cheese with fresh dill on pumpernickel, served with sliced lemon garnish. The Hideaway Speakeasy, the Veranda, Grandstand upper level, northwest section.

Spicy Thai Noodles: Rice noodles and red curry with coconut milk served with kaffir lime, basil leaves, bell peppers, galangal, onions and tomatoes. (Gluten free.) Oodles of Noodles, Food Building, east wall.

Deep-Fried Avocado: Avocado slices dipped in a lightly seasoned batter, deep fried and served with chipotle ranch dipping sauce. O’Gara’s at the Fair, at the southwest corner of Dan Patch Avenue and Cosgrove Street.

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Cranberry Wild Rice Meatballs: Swedish-style meatballs with cranberries and wild rice blend covered with lingonberry sauce. Hamline Church Dining Hall, north side of Dan Patch Avenue between Underwood and Cooper streets.


While the new list of trendy and unique foods create a great deal of interest each year, the top five revenue producers each year are about traditional as it gets:

  1. Sweet Martha’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (gross revenue of over $3 million)
  2. All You Can Drink Milk booth and the all you can drink milk booth (over $1 million)
  3. Mouth Trap Cheese Curds ($896,840),
  4. Fresh French Fries (2 locations) ($782,850)
  5. Roasted Corn ($685,000).


By Nancy Iglesias

SouthernMinn Scene | |
115 5th Street West Northfield, MN 55057