No More Fried Food Freak Show: A Look at How the MN State Fair Curates Its New Foods List
A whopping 27 dishes landed in the Minnesota State Fair spotlight Tuesday morning with the unveiling of this year’s list of new foods to try at the 2018 get-together.
The full array is available to view over at our sister publication Mpls St. Paul, along with Top 5 lists from the magazine’s food connoisseurs and writers Stephanie March and Dara Moskowitz.
While 27 new foods is more than enough to stomach in a single (or multiple) trips to the fairgrounds, the number is actually much smaller than the true selection of new foods that’ll be available from August 23 to Labor Day.
“We actually had just over 70 submissions for new food this year,” says Dennis Larson. Alternatively known as the “food czar” of the Minnesota State Fair offices, Larson heads the team that culls through every submission and ultimately curates a final list.
“We try to limit the list to a couple dozen,” he says of his office’s process. “We did almost 40 one year and it was too daunting. People just get lost in the abyss.”
And before you ask, no, Larson says he does not taste every food that’s submitted. “People ask all of the time if I get to sample all of the food and I’ll say, ‘get to, or have to?’”
The reasoning behind the cap comes down to a number of reasons, the chief one being quality control. To this point, Larson tells TCB the days of wacky foods being featured prominently among the new Fair fare are largely in the past.
“How can people take fair food seriously anymore when we peaked with deep-fried bubble gum, Coke and Pepsi. What’s left to throw in the fryer?” he says while pointing to the food theatrics occurring at the Texas State Fair. “I call it the Fried Food Freak Show. We’re trying to break away from the Freak Show and—not that we want to be high-end white tablecloth—we can still be good food but fun food, and I think that’s where we are this year.”
Among 2018’s new food options, only a handful are fried and there’s nothing on a stick. Many of the submitted foods that aren’t being served up on the Fair’s curated new foods list arguably would have made it several years ago, Larson says. But not this time.
This year’s concoctions instead, he says, work toward the Minnesota State Fair’s goal of “busting a clichÃ©” that’ll likely never go away.
What goes into a new food submission?
Stephanie Shimp and her team at Blue Plate Restaurant Company waste no time ideating for next year’s State Fair. In fact, as fairgoers are exploring the pool of new offerings this year, they’ll be planning for 2019.
“In earnest, we start at this year’s fair as we are walking around seeing what’s selling, what’s not, what’s on trend,” says Shimp, who is the co-owner of Blue Plate and runs its Blue Barn location at the State Fair. Around the end of September, Blue Plate’s crew of food-smiths will meet for a new food brainstorming session.
A couple months later, in November, the State Fair will reach out to vendors to re-register—a move that Larson believes gets everyone into the mindset of creating their new food submissions.
By late January or February, Shimp and her team tend to regroup to begin generating first drafts of their food concepts. “We’ll spitball ten to 20 ideas and start a little research and development,” she says. “We usually narrow it down by March to four or five things and then we’ll do heavy R&D on those.”
Key to the research and development phase, Shimp says, is sourcing the ingredients needed to build the dish. Not having a Plan B for gathering materials if a new food becomes a mega hit can otherwise spell disaster.
“One year we sold 15,000 candied bacon BLTs after we had spec’d that we would sell only 3,000,” Shimp recalls. “Here’s how it went: The Fair opens on a Thursday and by Saturday night at 6 p.m. we had sold all 3,000 orders of that candied bacon BLT. So we had to beg Franklin Street Bakery to fire up the ovens and make the specialty bun they made for us while at the same time we cleared out every piece of this particular bacon by Hormel in the tri-state area—literally, the tri-state area.”
As impossible as it can be to anticipate demand, having a plan to meet its potential is often the difference between a successful State Fair experience and a major flop.
“You have 12 days, and every day at the Fair is like a month’s worth of business,” says Shimp. “So if you screw up a day, you’ve screwed up a whole month’s worth of revenue.”
Speed of assembly is just as crucial a detail. Shimp says Blue Barn aims to have every item on its menu delivered within a minute of being ordered. At the same time, the food can’t be sloppily crafted as every item should be Instagrammable, adds Shimp.
“Then by March and April, that’s really about tasting the food,” she says. “How does it hold up? Can it sit in a window for three minutes? What’s it taste like after ten minutes?”
This is all in preparation for a May 1 deadline to submit each new food to the State Fair. Notably, this year, Blue Barn also submitted bacon-stuffed tots as a new food to the State Fair, but only its Swedish Meatball SmÃ¶rgÃ¥s made the final cut.
Blue Barn's bacon-stuffed tots and its Swedish Meatball SmÃ¶rgÃ¥s. (Photo courtesy of Mpls St. Paul magazine)
Despite only half of its submissions making the official new foods list—which will be available to grab at information booths around the fairgrounds—Blue Barn will still be promoting both of its new items on social media.
Says Shimp: “It’s still worthy of our attention internally and to the extent that we will tell fairgoers through our own channels.”