Nothing provides a stronger sense of nostalgia than the days leading up to the fair.
In my town, this was the last big deal before going back to school. My friends and I lived up every moment. Bright flashing lights, race cars, “free stuff” booths and carnival games, but if you are like me, then this fantasy isn’t complete without greasy overpriced delights, and that is exactly where every bit of my summer time savings went.
One could argue that a fair would survive without the business sponsors, and recently we have seen fairs prosper while their rides are shut down and booths closed, but would there really be any hope without the food? I doubt anyone wants to find out. Especially not the Minnesota State Fair, which pulls in a minimum of $50 million in food sales alone per year.
Food is key for fairs.
Tradition is the driving force. Nothing says “American” like greasy food, and this tradition dates back farther than you would think.
The World Fair, started in St. Louis Missouri, is credited with being the first major event in America to incorporate food vendors as a regular parts of their business. Furthermore, in 1904, this event was the spark that ignited the invention of some of our most common fast food and summer treat picks, such as hamburgers, hot dogs, club sandwiches and even the ice cream cone.
There are various sources that claim this information is a tad far-fetched. However, one thing they do not argue is just how popular these every day food items have become, all because of the fair. It’s safe to say that the concept of “fair food” is not new, and throughout time, fair vendors have found ways to keep reinventing new ideas to keep us interested. This is especially true for our very own Minnesota State Fair.
Every year the MSF releases a list of all their newest intricate and artistically crafted goodies, so people can set themselves up for new experiences and challenges. This reminds me of waiting for a music festival to reveal their line up so I can decide which bands I am most excited about. This has gone beyond just consumption, but has become an art form.
The Minnesota State Fair has always set the bar when it comes to creative foods to the point where even if it sounds terrible, people are eager to stand in line for hours and spend wads of cash just to say they did it. One example of this year’s reveal is deep fried avocados and sweet corn – blue berry eclairs.
The beauty of being a “fair food maven,” in my opinion, is the fact that there are endless options. Imagine going to a restaurant that had virtually every type of food in every variation, and this particular restaurant was only open one or two weeks out of the year.
So what impact does this have on county fairs? It forces them to take bigger steps. It creates a higher and more diverse demand for goods and services, and pushes vendors to try unique things.
Cynthia Travis of Owatonna has been working hard for the past 25 years to raise the bar when it comes to food. Day-to-day, she helps her mother run a Mexican restaurant, “Grace’s,” which has always been a popular spot among locals. One week out of the year, during the Steele County Free Fair, she and her two daughters, Kendall and Jordan, run their food stand, “Cindy Nachos.”
Most Owatonna fair-goers would tell you that Cindy Nachos is an absolute must when looking for something delicious and unique. The idea came to Cindy as a child when her mother would make her a batch of nachos and she simply requested that ground beef be added.
As she got older she realized that this fairly simple combination had the taste and quality to stand on its own, and she pushed her mother to allow her to branch out. Her mother had been bringing “Grace’s” to the Steele County Fair since the late 70s and has always had a good level of success.
“It took me close to 5 years,” Cindy said, to convince her mother to let her set up a separate stand for “Cindy Nachos.” Now, 25 years later, she is still very proud of the success and popularity that has come from it.
“I still love to tease my mom,” Cindy said. “We are very proud to be different.”
Cindy realized that raising the bar wasn’t too difficult when all people wanted was something they couldn’t get at any old every day fair. Of course, there is the long hours and hard work, 7 a.m. to midnight six days a week to be exact, but that doesn’t stop her or her two daughters.
“We love the challenge,” she said. “They also make an effort to bring in help from current employees of the restaurant and even, at times, past employees.”
Depending on the time of year, and which fair you choose to frequent, just know that there are many other family businesses who, just like Cindy, aim to bring a sense of uniqueness to their county fair. One favorite of my wife’s is the “Strawberries and Cream” booth at the Waseca County Fair. If you are me, you might be more partial to a good Reuben at the Elk’s booth.
The possibilities are endless. When it comes to hunting for oddities on a stick, or just a good old fashion meal, there will always be something for everyone.
By Wesely Johnson