Every year, more than a thousand commercial vendors set up at the Minnesota State Fair hoping for the same thing: to be the next Sweet Martha.
It hasn’t happened yet— Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar (with three locations) has been the fair’s top grossing food vendor for 11 years, since overtaking the Midwest Dairy Association in 2006. No matter how much buzz new products attract, rarely do they come close to touching the big money makers, which tend to be the classics: cheese curds, ice cream, and French fries.
Food sellers pay the State Fair 15 percent of their gross revenue, which is why their earnings are so closely tracked. The fair doesn’t track earnings for non-food vendors.
Before firing up the ovens for opening day on Thursday, food vendors must make a significant upfront investment—at least $200,000 to build out a new concession trailer, estimates Dennis Larson, the fair’s license administration manager. Even a booth in the Food Building will cost $40,000 to $60,000 to equip, he says.
It wasn’t that way when Sweet Martha’s built its first Cookie Jar in 1979. “Twenty, thirty years ago, you could start out on the cheap,” Larson says. “Now, you have to put in a professional kitchen.”
For non-food vendors, the upfront costs are significantly less—space at the fair goes for $150 per foot of frontage. “Their biggest cost is inventory,” Larson says, “and taking the gamble on producing too much, or selling out the first day.”
The same way the fair has moved away from gimmicky foods—not one of the new items this year is on a stick—soft goods are stepping up their game as well. The fair has become a place for brand building and launching new high-end items, from apparel to home furnishings to hand crafted wood paddle boards that retail for more than $1,000.
“When I was a kid, the big deal was the invisible dog leash. That kind of thing went away with the wacky foods,” says the fair’s general manager Jerry Hammer. “We’ve moved away from gadgets and gizmos to products with broader appeal that really have some staying power.”
But can they compete with buckets of warm chocolate chip cookies?