State Fair Recap: The Rise of Craft Beer and Death of the Stick

Why craft beer is driving huge sales and revenue, while food on a stick seems to be reaching its end.

Photos by Jason DeRusha

We know who the Queen of the Minnesota State Fair is, right? Sweet Martha. In 2015, her two locations generated $3.2 million in gross sales, before she paid her staff and bought her supplies. Who’s the King of the fair? It might well be craft beer. And Dan Theisen from Ball Park Cafe.

I know what you’re thinking, how can Ball Park Cafe be in the same breath as Sweet Martha’s? My WCCO colleague Pat Kessler gets the data every year from the Minnesota State Fair showing gross sales and beverage sales. He gave me the full data to share with you. Ball Park Cafe made it into the million dollar club, grossing $1,046,017 in 2015, a 30% increase from 2014. The menu prices only went up 2%. So what happened? Beer. Ball Park sells more than 20 Minnesota craft beers, including the juggernaut—Lift Bridge’s Mini Donut Beer.

From Pat’s report: “For the first time, six of the top 10 grossing State Fair booths are beer vendors.” They don’t distinguish craft beer and regular beer, but I can make some educated guesses based on the list. Ball Park did almost $800,000 in beer sales in 2015. Cafe Caribe serves pretty traditional State Fair beer, a couple big Minnesota beers but mainly big beers at $837,305. The Craft Beer Guild did almost $700,000 in Minnesota beers, up 22% from 2014. The Giggle’s craft beer patio behind the stand has finally exploded, in 2015 beer sales were up there 21% to $510,114.

Overall the beer and wine retailers are paying a huge amount to the State Fair in concession percentage. In 2015, the fair took in almost $1.6 million dollars just from beer and wine, up from $1.4 million, a 13.2% increase!

I know there’s been some concern that the fair and brewers are going all-in on gimmicky beers, but it doesn’t bother me. If you’re a craft beer lover, you can find incredible beers like the Bent Paddle Hopmosa, with that hint of orange, and the Bent Brewstillers State Fair Great Sweat Together (they still have a keg of it at the brewery if you want to try it). But I enjoyed the Bad Weather Brewing Funnel Cake beer at Mancini’s, and go ahead and get mad, but I enjoyed the Chocolate Chip Cookie Beer at Andy’s Grill from Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake! 

Other trivia: the new guys are doing well in the West End Market. Lu Lu’s Public House brought in $927,319 in 2015; Blue Barn made $720,981. Both were down from 2014, the debut year of West End, but expect those numbers to be up after this year’s fair. And so much for food on a stick: of the 32 official new fair foods, only the Minnesota Corn Dog and Paneer on a Spear were on a stick. 

Bear in mind, not everyone gets rich at the fair. Nitro Ice Cream is one of 65 vendors netting between $100,000-$200,000 with $102,629 in 2015 (not bad for 12 days). 175 vendors made less than $100,000 and that’s before paying staff and costs. In all, the fair’s vendors made more than $42.5 million in 2015, a 9% increase from 2014.

Read more:
The Best and Worst New State Fair Foods
Inside the 2016 MN State Fair: Choosing the New Foods

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