From Norway Gas Stations to MN State Fair: The Sweet But Savory Story of Nordic Waffles Migration
State fairs are as American as apple pie. But this year, the Minnesota State Fair — the second-largest in the country — is getting a brand-new Scandinavian twist, in the form of Nordic Waffles.
Nordic Waffles is one of just four food vendors entering the fair fold for their first time this year. Stine Aasland, owner and founder of Nordic Waffles, is well aware of how significant it is for the company.
“The fair is the best opportunity for us ever to get our brand out,” says Aaasland. “We’re only two years old so we’re still working to be on the map.”
Though she notes the company got off the ground in 2016, the road to this opportunity began long before that.
From Norway novice to Super Bowl star
Aasland first started selling her homemade waffles — created with a unique batter and waffle-maker — in a gas station chain she owned in Oslo, Norway. Eventually she sold them across the country, was dubbed Norway’s “Waffle Queen” and won an award there for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010.
In 2015, Aasland decided to move to the U.S. to start an official waffle business. She settled in Minnesota that October, after learning of the Twin Cities’ Sons of Norway organization.
“[Minneapolis] was like a mini-Norway,” says Aasland. “The American-Norwegian community here really helped me and opened the door.”
With her Nordic Waffles business established, Aasland initially applied to be a vendor for the 2017 State Fair but didn’t make the cut.
Dennis Larson, license administration manager for the State Fair, says that decision was partly because fair officials prefer new vendors to have a decent amount of experience at festivals and similar events before participating in the State Fair, given its magnitude.
Nordic Waffles took the advice to heart, and in no time flat: It was chosen as one of four food vendors for the 2018 Super Bowl Live events on Nicollet Mall. The waffle-maker also appeared at pride festivals, Open Streets, the Stone Arch Bridge Festival, and more — 300 total events to date.
Almost overnight, events became a major aspect of Nordic Waffles’ business; the other key revenue driver being the proprietary waffle maker and batter it sells to coffee shops, convenience stores, hotels and restaurants. Nordic Waffles’ only brick-and-mortar site is located in and run by Valleyfair, so most of the company’s own vending is done via tents or trailers operated by recently-approved licensees at events.
A Perfect Fit
In addition to its acquired experience, Larson says what also helped Nordic Waffles’ State Fair candidacy was a bit of happenstance. After submitting its 2018 application, a space opened up to fit in Nordic Waffles — a rarity for State Fair food vendors. Most food stands choose to re-up for the next year for one simple reason: sales in a single day at the Fair often equals multiple weeks of sales from a standard storefront operation.
“We’re in a variety stalemate of thinking waffles are just waffles, but Nordic Waffles is anything but that,” says Larson, referring to the product as ethnic and exotic.
As Aasland explains, her waffles are thinner and more crepe-like than standard American or Belgium waffles. In fact, Aasland says they don’t even offer the standard waffle with syrup and butter. Instead, like crepes, they’re filled with savory and/or sweet toppings. For example, the fair menu includes a cinnamon-sugar-butter option, an egg-bacon-cheddar option, and entirely new for the fair, the Vegetarian Viking – a black bean veggie burger topped with cheddar cheese, mixed greens and chipotle sauce.
A sampling of menu items from Nordic Waffles. (Photo courtesy of Nordic Waffles)
What also helped seal the deal for Nordic Waffles was the company’s plan to go all out for the festival, tapping into Aasland’s Nordic heritage to be more than just an eatery.
Culture at its core
Aasland decided to build a traditional Norwegian cabin on their 20-by-20-square-foot fair site. As is custom, the cabin will feature a grass-covered roof with a goat sculpture for photo opps. Aasland is asking fair-goers to help give the “goat” a name.
“Our vision is to inspire the heart in every moment, so we really want to give you so much more than a waffle,” says Aasland. “I think it’s the core of who Nordic Waffles is… we give you a full experience, a new food and cultural experience.”
The Fair’s Larson says he loved that Nordic Waffles will bring such a cultural aspect to the table.
“It’s really a fun kind of bonus as far as we look at it — an experienced operator with a good product, a fun theme, a good storyline and it makes it that much better, makes it more of a fair food,” he says.
It’s been a round-the-clock endeavor getting the cabin and everything else ready since Nordic Waffles was approved as a vendor in May, and Aasland’s overseen it all while being pregnant — she even gave birth, as well as got married, within the last month. She credits her full-time staff of just six people for helping pull things together in time for the fair, while also continuing day-to-day operations.
Now with everything on track and the fair set to begin Thursday, Aasland says her team — which for fair operations has added 50 temporary employees — is getting more and more electric with each day leading up to Nordic Waffles’ Fair debut.
“We hope that we can be successful in revenue, but it is for us really the opportunity to give people that full Nordic waffle experience,” says Aasland. “We want to maximize this opportunity.”
Joining Nordic Waffles as newbie fair food and drink vendors are The Anchor Coffee House and two Midtown Global Market entities that will split time in the same space, Taco Cat and Mama D's.