The first official day of fall is fast approaching. For some, that means the Minnesota State Fair is well in the rearview mirror, but for the Hamline Church Dining Hall the fairs of both yesterday and tomorrow are still very much relevant.
The Dining Hall, a Hamline Church-run 121-year-old Great Minnesota Get-Together staple known for its ham loaf, “new foods” entries and other special treats, reached a crossroads this year. As they were getting ready for the 2018 event, Hamline Dining Hall leaders discovered their commercial dishwasher was no longer functional, nor were all four of their ranges, or ovens.
It was decided they could survive this year without the ovens, using just the cooktops, but the dishwasher absolutely had to be replaced, says Ray Faust, who manages the church’s social media accounts.
“We would’ve made MacGyver blush in terms of how we’d jerry-rigged that thing,” says Faust. “I mean it was ten years past the expiration date.”
To cover the costs, the church leaders tapped into the reserves set aside from 2017 proceeds—the best intake year the Hamline Dining Hall had ever had—and purchased a newer (but used) Hobart dishwasher. The machine and related installation expenses cost about $25,000.
“In 2017, we had a bonkers great year. We were on the new foods list – we had cranberry wild rice Swedish meatballs that were a blockbuster,” says Faust. “It did break our kitchen in the fact that our ovens didn’t work [afterwards].”
Neither the ovens nor the dishwasher failed in the middle of the fair, which Faust says would have been “catastrophic”. However, running without ovens this year cost potential proceeds, as the Hamline Church Dining Hall’s 2018 new food, Banana Foster French toast, was only offered during breakfast hours. They simply couldn’t offer it all day without the ovens.
The Hall still did well this year—it was their second-best intake after 2017, generating about $220,000, although that number isn’t final, says Faust. This recent success for some may beg the question: Why did the church still need donations for the equipment replacements?
Faust explains that much of the money goes toward the fair itself and various bills. Then, the church fulfills its traditional donation commitments to food ministries.
“We want to make sure we take care of whatever church obligation we have,” says Faust. “We are 100 percent committed to honoring that.”
All of Hamline Church Dining Hall's ovens were toast after the 2017 Minnesota State Fair. (Photo provided by Hamiline Church Dining Hall)
However, what’s left after its donation commitments isn’t much, especially in the face of having to replace multiple commercial ranges. Faust says that even with a company from southern Minnesota donating one range to Hamline Church Dining Hall, they expect the cost of replacing the other three to be between $25,000 and $40,000.
Which explains why Faust launched the GoFundMe campaign. It’s the first time the church has used such a platform to raise capital for the Hamline Dining Hall. Its only other major fundraising effort was when the Hall had to move locations at the State Fair, and the money came solely from church members.
“We just wanted to open it up to folks and see if we could connect with the broader Minnesota community,” says Faust. He believes tapping into fair fans is the right move, based both on the history of Hamline Dining Hall and what it may mean to them.
“We wouldn’t still be around if the people who go to the fair… didn’t appreciate our place,” he says. “The dining hall is a quintessentially Minnesota State Fair thing. I would say [it] is part of what makes the fair the fair.”
On the Hamline Church Dining Hall’s GoFundMe page, Phyllis Kerr said it’s the first place her and companions go when they get to the fair. Others praised the warm meals Hamline Dining Hall offers or reflected fondly on having worked at the hall. Sara Donaldson expressed admiration for Hamline being such a long-running tradition.
The Hamline Church Dining Hall is run entirely by volunteers. (Photo provided by Hamline Church Dining Hall)
So far, though, the Hall’s campaign has raised just over $1,000 toward its $25,000 goal since launching in early August.
Faust says that although the campaign hasn’t entirely taken off yet, they’re happy with the comments and the gifts they’ve received so far—which include contributions outside of GoFundMe, like a $1,000 check mailed directly to the church and a $500 check a fair guest wrote on the spot. He’s pleased with the pace, too, noting it hasn’t been that long and that they’re raising money every week. GoFundMe also doesn’t force an end date to the campaigns it hosts, so Faust is hopeful.
No matter the outcome, Hamline Dining Hall isn’t in a life-or-death situation, says Faust. Other options he and the church may pursue include taking out a loan, or re-assessing cash may be available in their reserves.
“At some point in time, you may say, ‘hey is there a tipping point of there being so many things we have to fix that it’s not worth it for us to keep doing it?” says Faust. “But we’re nowhere close to that.”
There are certainly other challenges the Hall faces going forward, notes Faust, including maintaining a sufficient volunteer base as core church volunteers age, as well as keeping pace with the fair as it grows. This year’s fair was the biggest ever, drawing more than 2 million visitors.
But again, Faust is confident that enough people appreciate what the Hamline Dining Hall is about, from its atmosphere, to the community, to the family-friendly food.
“This is not a woe is us tale. We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve done everything that we’ve done the way we have,” says Faust. “There’s a different purpose to what we do. It’s not just about gorging yourself… it’s about knowing that when you go to this place that’s been around forever, you’re helping others, too.”