No tradition, not even the 159-year-old Great Minnesota Get-Together, is immune to change. New food and vendor offerings each year are proof of that, and now the fair’s longstanding administrator in charge of selecting those new vendors will be stepping down.
The “Food Czar,” a title created and owned by Dennis Larson, is ending his 22-year rein after the 2018 Minnesota State Fair. In a more official capacity, Larson has long been known as the fair’s license administration manager, overseeing the approval of both food and beverage vendor licenses. Counting non-food licenses, roughly 1,200 vendors were approved to operate on the fairgrounds this year.
“It’s been a labor of love,” says Larson. “Everybody that works there has a passion for the fair, that’s what makes the work a lot of fun.”
Although he still enjoys the job, Larson says he decided to retire due to his age – he’s 63 now but will be 64 when he officially says goodbye in about two months. A desire to do other things, he adds, helped push him out the door.
“Working at the fair is truly a joy, but you do sacrifice your summers, and don’t have any time for vacation or as much time with family as I’d like,” says Larson, who has five grandchildren, including two who live out of town. “Now I am able to go and visit them, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Out with a bang
Larson’s swan song couldn’t have gone better, as this year’s State Fair set an all-time attendance record, with more than 2 million people passing through over the course of the fair’s 12 days. What’s more, five single-day attendance records were set, as was the all-time record for visitors in a single day: Saturday, September 1 drew 270,426 visitors.
Larson credits the better-than-ever turnout to the roller-coaster weather the Twin Cities saw during the duration of the fair. Having a couple somewhat rainy days, especially early on, and not too many perfect days, he thinks, helped foster an angst for people to get out to the fair – before it was too late, or in case tomorrow brought worse conditions.
In any case, Larson appreciates the significance of this milestone year coming when it did.
“They say quit when you’re on top,” he jokes. “It was all in all a fun year and a fun way to leave, for sure.”
A new Czar is born
Larson is set to pass the “Food Czar” torch onto Nicole Hines, the current State Fair attractions food and beverage supervisor. Hines isn’t an unfamiliar face to the organization: For more than two decades she’s worked within the fair’s food and beverage operations. Additionally, during most of the calendar year (when the State Fair isn’t active), Hines has been the food and beverages overseer on the fair grounds. In preparation for her new role, Hines also shadowed Larson in his State Fair role the last ten months.
With Hines’ background, State Fair deputy general manager Jim Sinclair is confident the leadership transition will be as “seamless as you can imagine.” Larson agrees, noting that he expects Hines will make for an easy transition while bringing something new and improved to the fair.
“She’s a little bit younger than me and brings a different perspective,” says Sinclair. Moreover, “[Hines] has a younger family, so she knows what their needs are.”
Larson says the hardest part of the job is that with operating 300 food locations serving more than 500 foods, there are so many moving parts and things to keep track of. His main advice to his successor is simply to be prepared for anything.
Twenty-two years is a lot of time to make memories, and yet Larson says there isn’t one moment he’d single out as his greatest accomplishment.
However, he does proudly point out that the fair has recently trended toward offering foods that redefine fair treats beyond the “goofy carnival” options that are all batter-dipped, deep-fried, and on a stick.
“We’ve turned the corner and had more savory foods,” says Larson, “and we’ve created an ongoing program to add gluten-free whenever we can for that audience so that they can enjoy the fair, too.”
He hopes the pace he helped set toward offering more alternatives and less of a "fried food freak show" will continue on after he’s gone.
In the meantime, he’s sticking around to see the 2018 fair procedures through to their end, which’ll go until late October when the Minnesota State Fair organization’s fiscal year ends.