DeRushaEats: Minnesota State Fair Small Business Success

I’ve spent a lot of time at the Minnesota State Fair this year, as I do every year for my job at WCCO. Friday night at 10 I’m doing a story on how much money the biggest moneymakers at the fair haul in. It’s a lot of money.

What strikes me is that the vendors at the fair have the same entrepreneurial spirit that our great local restauranteurs do. They’re people with a dream who take a risk.

Sweet Martha Olson has been on top of the list for years. She has an amazing story: She had a yogurt shop and was trying to get yogurt into the fair in 1979, but they already had yogurt. On her application she mentioned yogurt and cookies, because she was making that flavor combo in her yogurt shop. The fair called her three weeks before and asked her just to do cookies. She did it, and she makes more than $2 million a year (gross revenue) at the fair. Using the fair’s estimation of 25% gross ends up being profit, she’s hauling in at least $500,000 over 12 days. Thus she retired; she was an elementary school art teacher in St. Paul.

Giggles Campfire Grill is owned by Tim “Giggles” Weiss. He bought the place on top of machinery hill in 2000. He told me yesterday the fair promised him they were trying to move the fair up toward the hill, but the first year he spent a lot of time sitting alone on his picnic tables, wondering how stupid he was. Last year his sales were up 26% thanks largely to one item—of all things—the salad on a stick. It’s a delightful caprese salad that he came up with while catering a Vikings tailgating party, when saw someone with a caprese salad. He thought the mozzarella and tomatoes would be great on a stick, and was right.

Brad Ribar at the Corn Roast booth started working at the fair on the garbage crew as a teenager. Today he sells almost 200,000 ears of corn at the fair at $3 a crack—and they’re awesome. What a risk though—when he bought the stand it cost him about $300,000 in today’s money.

Just like part of the fun of going to a farmers’ market is meeting the farmer, I get a real charge out of talking to the people who had a dream about frying cheese curds, or selling lamb fries, or this year’s new dreamer—the guy who owns Duke’s Poutine. I finally got to try it today: The poutine has super fresh squeaky cheese curds, and the gravy tastes like KFC’s—one of my guilty pleasures. It’s tasty. The owners: Erin and Matt Ribar. Yeah, Matt is 24 and he’s Brad Ribar’s son. From corn to Canadian-style poutine. Where else, but at the fair?

Poutine   Poutine