Cash or Card? Probing the Future of Payments at the Minnesota State Fair
Photo by Caitlin Abrams

Cash or Card? Probing the Future of Payments at the Minnesota State Fair

In the wake of Covid-19, credit card acceptance grew significantly at the fair, but cash-only vendors remain.

Cash used to be king, as they say. Especially at the Minnesota State Fair. Credit and debit cards slow transaction times while requiring sophisticated technology and a desire on the part of a merchant to give a couple percent to a card processor (they are permitted to pass fees on to customers). So ATMs do a brisk business. But times are changing.

Many Gen Zers don’t carry cash as a matter of course. And transaction averages have risen substantially in recent years. Spending north of $100 per person is not uncommon at the fair. For a family, that’s a lot of bills. During the early days of the pandemic, it was frequently posited that the virus traveled on surfaces. Though this was quickly disproven, such “truths” proved hard to dislodge. So-called “touchless” payments grew in popularity. When the fair reopened in 2021, its large majority of cash-only vendors had dwindled.

Still, mobile food carts may not get there for a while. Given the fair’s unreliable cell signals (due to heavy use) and the need to establish a phone line or hard-wired broadband, smaller merchants will be last to adopt.

Cash and the egalitarian nature of the fair had long made it a relative no-tipping zone. Tip jars and signage encouraging tipping were forbidden, so other than the occasional “keep the change” admonition, tips were few and far between. But with the advent of digital payments came the option of percentage-based tip prompts, which are starting to make their way into the fair, even though there is very little waiter-service dining there.

The fair’s manual for vendors states: “Tips may not be solicited … but can be accepted if offered and immediately removed from the sight of guests. Vendors who utilize electronic payment systems may accept tips, but must provide the guest a clear and easy option to select no tip or opt out of tipping.”

TCB asked a sample of fair merchants how they were approaching plastic and tipping for 2023’s Great Minnesota Get-Together.

  • RC’s BBQ: At the crossroads of the fair, near the main entrance and the Midway, RC’s still runs it old-school. Owner Charlie Torgerson says a lack of secure internet keeps his joint cash-only, despite tabs that can easily exceed $20 a person. “We’ve talked about taking cards,” he says, “but it’s too easy for us to get hacked.”
  • Minnesota Wine Country: Across from the Ag Building, Minnesota Wine Country sells local wine and foods that complement wine. It was one of the early adopters of plastic, adding it in 2012. “Back then, almost nobody used cards,” recalls co-owner Shawn McMerty. “I thought I’d made a bad decision,” investing in a point-of-sale system (POS) and related technology. “Covid ramped cards up hard, though.” Now half his transactions are plastic. His charge slips have contained a tip line for years, though he says tipping began in earnest in 2021. He considers tips an inducement in hiring; they represented 5% of overall sales last year. “Prospective employees ask,” he notes.
  • Big Fat Bacon: BFB, on Nelson near the skyride and butterfly house, began taking cards in 2021, using a Square POS system and Wi-Fi the stand’s owners installed. The system does not prompt for tips, but co-owner Mandy Abdo Sheahan notes that late at night, “depending on how drunk people are,” cash extras become prevalent. 25% of BFB’s transactions last year were on plastic.
  • Giggles Campfire Grill: Up north on Cooper, Tim “Giggles” Weiss operates a landmark fair eatery that has accepted plastic on and off for the last “seven or eight” years. Last year 55% of his transactions were cards, but he doubts it will ever get to 100%. Giggles does not prompt for tips, believing it is the electronic equivalent of the forbidden tip jar.
  • LuLu’s Public House: Lulu’s elaborate eating and drinking complex in the new-ish West End Market has been accepting cards since ’21, after co-owner Charlie Burrows grew weary of “aggravating” customers who spent 20-30 minutes in line only to find they lacked sufficient cash to complete a purchase. Still, he understands why many vendors remain cash only, noting a POS system is “a big investment for 12 days.” And more than half of Lulu’s transactions are still cash. Lulu’s prompts card transactions for tips, “allowing us to get more conscientious employees.” (He says average wages approach $25/hour because of tips.)