A Fair Chance: Inside the State Fair Incubator Where Food Startups Split Time
Nestled within the Minnesota State Fair’s International Bazaar is a long-standing space that doubles down on the excitement of “new fair foods” by housing not one, but two vendors that split time over the course of the fair’s 12 days.
The space belongs to Midtown Global Market, an international-themed public market in Minneapolis that serves as a launching pad for primarily minority-owned food ventures. In keeping with this launch-pad role, Midtown Global uses the fair space – which it’s owned for about 12 years – to showcase two businesses.
This year, the chosen businesses, Taco Cat and Mama D’s, are both total newbies to the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
“The concept of the booth was to incubate businesses that had had a dream of always wanting to be at the State Fair, and see if they could do it,” says Becky Gazca, marketing and events manager of the Neighborhood Development Center – one of two entities that own Midtown Global. “Because it isn’t for everybody, it’s intense, but it’s also an opportunity to get their name out there.”
Then and now
As initially pitched to fair organizers by Midtown Global Market leaders, the 12 days were divvied up between three businesses. However, three years ago it was decided they’d switch to having only two businesses use the space for six days each. Gazca says it’s easier on the businesses in terms of finances and picking up word-of-mouth steam.
Hot Indian Foods and Rabbit Hole have been the chosen operators since that change, but this year, fair organizers decided it was time for a switch.
“A fresh company with new products always does better because that’s just what people are looking for,” says Dennis Larson, license administration manager for the Minnesota State Fair. “And that’s the intent of the booth – to not have it be the same people, to have it be an incubator.”
So, Larson and other fair officials went to Midtown Global Market to do taste tests. From that, Mexican-themed Taco Cat and the BBQ stylings of Mama D’s emerged as the new picks for the space.
“We’ve had different types of barbeque at the fairgrounds but never the Southern-style that Mama D’s brought,” says Larson. “And then Taco Cat, some people say everything’s a taco, but their tacos are [special].”
Destiny Brooks, owner of Mama D’s, was thrilled to be selected. She applied a few years ago – before the business even had a physical place in Midtown Global Market, which came last December – but was turned down.
She thinks the officials actually tasting her food made a difference this time. In fact, the fair testers’ positive feedback about so many different items inspired Brooks to create Mama D’s main fair offering: a “BBQ split” combining mac’ n’ cheese, pulled pork and coleslaw.
Mama D's fair special: a BBQ split. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair)
Once Mama D’s and Taco Cat were chosen, Gazca says – only half-kidding – that the business owners flipped a coin to decide who would take which six days of the fair.
Gazca admits deciding scheduling is tricky, since everybody has a different theory on what the best timing is. She notes the first business may benefit from the excitement of opening weekend, and the second business may have to deal with people coming to the booth looking for menu items from the first. On the other hand, the end person, she says, might benefit from overall fair business building up as time goes on. Historically, the second half of the State Fair has been the busiest.
“There’s pros and cons to both,” says Gazca. “There’s so many variables at the State Fair, it’s really hard to pinpoint.”
That’s why it’s left up to the business owners to decide, but Gazca doesn’t think Taco Cat or Mama D’s minded either way.
“They’re just happy to come out, happy to be picked,” says Gazca, “and they know if they perform well, the State Fair watches them and that might be an open door for another opportunity.”
Mama D’s ended up with the second shift, so Taco Cat is open now through August 28, and Mama D’s will be on site August 29 through the fair’s end. Brooks prefers it this way, since Taco Cat has been in business longer, so it has more clout to bring initial attention to the booth.
Brooks is also fully on board with the whole concept of splitting time.
“Personally, I feel that it’s good,” says Brooks. “It’s my first experience there… I’m okay with that. They should do that with anybody that comes in for the first time – don’t overwhelm them with the whole 12 days.”
Brooks was more concerned with who was chosen as Mama D’s partner, and she was happy it was Taco Cat – in part because she feels they share a common theme: both specialize in giving traditional foods their own nontraditional, original flavors and twists.
Taco Cat's fair specialty, the General Tso Chicken Taco. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair)
“I was excited they didn’t pick something regular… our flavors make our food stand out,” says Brooks. “It’s a good match.”
Conversely, Larson adds they were chosen together for what they don’t have in common.
“They’re totally different products, which makes it kind of nice,” says Larson. “We thought it made it a little more fun.”
From being chosen to getting open
Brooks says although it’s to be expected, there were a lot of State Fair rules and regulations Mama D’s had to adjust to, and the preparation process has been extensive, from obtaining licenses, to figuring out staffing and food-purchasing systems, and more.
In terms of making the actual changeover when Taco Cat’s time is up, the only equipment that will be swapped is a 6-eye burner Mama D’s needs, in place of the deep fryer Taco Cat is using that Mama D’s won’t.
Gazca says the Midtown Global Market space is in a good location so the logistics of the equipment swap are easy, and they’ll do it after the fair closes the night of the 28th.
The bigger problem for everyone is making sure fair-goers aren’t disappointed or confused when Taco Cat disappears. Gazca and Larson note that their organizations make an extensive effort to advertise about the split schedule, so fair attendees are aware of the situation.
Larson says it’s never really been a big issue in the past, and Brooks is confident she can win over any surprised Taco Cat visitors for Mama D’s, should that circumstance arise.
Fairway to the future
According to Gazca, whether it’s Mama D’s or Taco Cat out there, it’s a big deal for Midtown Global Market. It puts the whole market on the map and might bring new guests to the market long after the fair.
In addition to financial success, that’s what Brooks wants most out of Mama D’s fair debut – for people to see the restaurant at the fair and learn of its real base location at Midtown Global.
Mama D's full-time location in Midtown Global Market. (Photo courtesy of Midtown Global Market)
“I can’t wait to see everybody [at the fair],” says Brooks, “because I want everyone to know Mama D’s is here, and I’m not going nowhere.”
As for seeing everyone at future fairs, Brooks hopes that’s in the cards, and that perhaps, after putting a couple years in, Mama D’s will be invited to have its own spot there for all 12 days, when the time is right.
Larson says they welcome that outcome for this incubator space, since that’s the point. For Mama D’s and Taco Cat, he’s optimistic.