Style Profile: Martha Rossini Olson

Walter Voulax shirt, $266, Henry & Belle distressed  jeans, $184, Maria Cornejo sandals, $487, and Megan Park necklaces, $108–$150 each, all @ Grethen House, 4930 France Ave. S., Edina, 952-926-8725,; Michael Kors watch, Martha’s own
photos by wing ta, hair and makeup by fatima olive

Martha Rossini Olson’s charming Highland Park home looks rather like a fairytale cottage tucked amongst beautiful gardens. Squint a little, and you might just mistake the brick walls for gingerbread. Outside, the aroma of chocolate wafts through the air—perhaps “Sweet Martha” is baking a fresh batch of her famous State Fair cookies?

“It’s the cocoa bean shells in the mulch,” Olson explains with a laugh as she answers the door. Sweet Martha’s State Fair stand celebrates 37 years this summer; over time, the business evolved into a full-time gig for the retired art teacher, including regular events and demonstrations as well as a line of frozen cookie dough launched in 1994. Not bad, considering the enterprise was conceived in three weeks.

Get a behind the scenes look into Martha Rossini Olson

Olson and her husband, Gary, ran a downtown frozen yogurt shop in the 1970s and applied several times to sell yogurt at the fair, to no avail—until a separate application for selling cookies was successful. “Three weeks before the 1979 fair, they called and asked us to come with the cookies. My husband and our friend Neil built the booth, and I got recipes from all of the moms in our group to put together the perfect one.”

A fresh batch of State Fair favorites, Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar cookies

The booth now takes up prime real estate with two iconic yellow stands that sell nothing but coffee, milk, water, and soft, chewy chocolate chip cookies served warm and piled high in overflowing cones and buckets. Last year’s output was about a million cookies per day. Every day of the fair, Martha and Neil’s wife oversee each batch during the day shift, and their spouses manage the night shift. “The coolest bonus of this whole thing is that I’m with my family the entire two weeks of the fair, because they all come in to help,” Olson says.  

As a child, sweets were an integral part of Olson’s family gatherings, when her mother’s elaborate desserts took center stage at dinnertime each evening. “It was part of the meal,” she explains. “You eat that sweet at the end with coffee, and that’s when you sit around the table and chat. That’s the way we were brought up, and making all of those desserts was great training.”

She still gathers with her siblings for those family events, and especially loves doing so in the summertime, when her vast backyard gardens are in full bloom. After purchasing the neighbor’s lot in 1992, Olson expanded her landscaping and now loves to host crowds under the brick pergola, which includes a 12-seat dining table and a built-in grill.

The backyard terrace at Martha’s home

“I love entertaining for big groups,” Olson says. “I like trying new things, but I also rely on old recipes from my mom and my sister—those classics are so good.”

Olson’s love of all things timeless translates into her personal style as well—she favors crisp shirtdresses, sleek watches (with large, easy-to-read numbers), and neutral colors, and considers jeans to be her constant staple. And in the heat of summer, she reaches for brighter hues such as coral and lime green. Of course, she’s also open to suggestions.

“My daughter is my shopping buddy,” says Olson. “I just wait for her to give me direction. I did the same for my mom—as you get older and are involved in so many other things, it’s great to have someone else tell you what to wear!”

Megan Park dress, $462 @ Grethen House

Martha Rossini Olson’s Style Crib Sheet

“I’ve always exercised. I enjoy it. I do Pilates at Defining You Pilates & Fitness and go lifting—it helps keep the sugar cravings on standby!”

The Fourth of July. “We have a lake place and we have the whole family up—for years, we did the Taste of Minnesota that weekend, but now we enjoy the holiday because we’re not working.”

Find a designer you trust. “I work with an old friend, Jane Delaney, who pushes my boundaries—now I just defer to her.”

Sweet Martha’s Tips for Perfect Cookies

It’s no secret that Sweet Martha knows her stuff when it comes to cookies. Check out her pointers below to bake up the perfect batch every time.

  1. Know your oven. “If you know where the hotspots are in your oven, you can rotate those cookies around. You have to really watch them—the first few minutes you can get away with doing something else in the kitchen, but keep a close eye.”
  2. Use parchment paper. “It keeps your cookies from sticking.”
  3. Pull them out early. “As soon as we see that golden ring, we take the cookies out. They’ll keep baking on the sheet, and you want them to still be chewy.”