A Fair To Remember

Telling you how my brother--I'll call him Bill--thought up his product or got the license to operate at the fair would tell you who he is, and neither he nor the fair administration are interested in that. He's run this business since the mid-'80s, holds a job the rest of the year--two or three, in fact--and lives in a small suburban house with his family. They've usually finished eating up their leftover product by the time they dip into their fair earnings to take a winter vacation somewhere both warm and cheap.

Until recently they didn't even do that, plowing their profit back into the business instead. Now that it's up to code and tricked out with the right equipment, there's enough capital to buy a Kenwood house sunk into the booth. That's a lot of cash to leave sitting under a tarp for 11 months a year.

Bill figures he's one of the top dozen fair vendors in terms of gross sales, but the numbers are hard to pin down. Vendors are notorious gossips, prone to swapping serious lies over beer after the fryers shut down. The small operators, the ones who peddle product out of small wood-frame "stick stands," jealously exaggerate the size of everybody else's take, and the larger ones try to suss out the newcomers. Everybody resents the really big players--holdovers from days gone by, when a handful of folks had the concessions all but sewn up.

Every year, some 330 food vendors set up shop at the fair, most operating a single booth. They can't sell their licenses or will them to their kids. When a vendor quits, dies, or doesn't get invited back, his or her permit reverts to the fair. Ten or 12 new businesses are licensed each year; this year they'll include a booth selling battered, deep-fried pickles and another producing ice cream shaped like spaghetti and served in a dish with sauce.

Deciding where to put each of these businesses, balancing sweet with savory, lemonade with beer, pickles with Pronto Pups throughout each of the fairgrounds' neighborhoods is a feat of engineering, and Jim Sinclair is its chief architect. The head of the fair's sales operation, Sinclair knows the number of people projected to amble down any one street at any hour of the day. He can adjust that number up for heavy weekend traffic or down for rain. He can pick through a hopeful souvenir merchant's kit bag and, in less than 90 seconds, find the baubles that will sell. Behind his back, the vendors call him "God."

Sinclair has spent his entire post-grade-school life working toward becoming a fair czar. Growing up in Chippewa Falls, he jobbed at the fair there throughout high school and college, then moved on to staff jobs at several other Wisconsin fairs. He can name the exact date he started work at Minnesota: February 16, 1975.

In those days, the fair was a clubby place. There were fewer vendors, but many owned multiple stands. You could buy a corn dog on each corner, but no walleye on a stick, no stuffed, deep-fried jalapeños, no elk burgers. Many of the stands were cheesy plywood-and-paint affairs. Operators were charged for their licenses according to the number of feet of street frontage they occupied.

Slowly but irrevocably, Sinclair set about changing that, and ratcheting up the fair's revenue in the process. A quasi-public state entity created by an 1854 act of the territorial Legislature, the fair hasn't gotten a taxpayer's nickel since the 1950s. Each year it has to make enough money to pay for exhibits, maintenance, and building renovations. And while that may not sound like much, the cost of a new roof on one of the bigger structures can top $1 million.

In the late 1980s--not long after Sinclair took on his present title--the fair began charging food and beverage vendors a flat 10 percent of gross receipts for their licenses. In Bill's case, that instantly changed his fee from about $1,500 a year to tens of thousands, plus electric and sewer assessments and other fees. Souvenir and novelty vendors now pay 15 percent of gross, game operators up to 20 percent, and ride operators between 20 percent and 45 percent. (Unlike most fairs, Minnesota operates its own midway. Rather than contracting with a carnival company to bring in the whole shebang, some of the fair's 50-plus full-time staffers choose each individual ride and place each game.)

Along with hiking the fees, Sinclair's sales operation began diversifying the ranks of the vendors. To stay vital, he explains, the fair must constantly offer something you can't get elsewhere, something you couldn't get here last year: "It's kind of what we see as our mandate," Sinclair explains, "providing what our audience has come to expect. Something new, something different--that's what brings people back every year."

But there's more to securing a license than a bright idea. Would-be vendors must fill out an extensive form which asks for information about the proposed product as well as an applicant's business history, experience in food and beverage sales, and references. Those who can supply all of the data--and most can't--are further evaluated.

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