The only place to buy cigarettes at the Minnesota State Fair is also the only place there to buy diapers, pacifiers, paper towels, tape, light bulbs, rubber gloves, bungee cords...
The list goes on. Steichen's Grocery and Deli is fully stocked. Looking for sunscreen or bug spray? They've got it. Sartorially ill-prepared for the weather? Ponchos, flip-flops, sunglasses, Steichen's hoodies for 20 bucks and T-shirts for 10 are all on hand. There's some fresh fruit, plenty of snacks, and $2 ice cream treats.
A full deli serves up made-to-order sandwiches and salads, including, from 7:30 to 10 a.m., a $4 breakfast sammy. Not to mention the grocery basics: fresh eggs for $3 a dozen, a pound of butter for $4.50.
And yes, up behind the counter are the all-important and almost impossible-to-find-elsewhere packs of cigs.
This week, a name-brand pack was going for $12 -- a little over $2 more than at the nearest gas station and worth every penny.
It seems some, maybe even most fairgoers don't know about Steichen's. All of them should. The store is not exactly hidden (it's on the offical State Fair map, where it's labeled simply "Commissary"), and it's certainly not new. "Celebrating 80 years," reads one of many signs decorating the building. It is a little tucked away -- just north of the sheep and poultry barn; think: close to the Midway, about halfway between Como Avenue and the Grandstand -- and it's not as eye-catching as its flashier neighbors.
It's an eye of calm in a fair-wide storm, an old-fashioned general store with well-worn wood floors, wall-mounted deer head, and old-timey pics from the shop's early days.
When Ted Steichen started the business in 1933, its main purpose was that of a butcher, processing all the meat that was cooked and sold at the fair, says Ted's grandson Jimmy Steichen. The retail part was quickly added, serving the many people employed at the fair as well as the general public. Ted also owned a store in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, until the freeway tore through that area in the '60s.
Jimmy has helped run Steichen's since 1969, along with other family and friends. There have been a few changes in recent years: Jimmy says they just started the breakfast service four years ago, and added the front patio seating eight years ago.
On Tuesday night, Jimmy takes breaks from his card game to help out tumbling waves of customers, all ages and types, some of them washing up on this place for the first time. Others, such as firefighter Darick Rhodes, know it well.
"Am I your only Republican friend, Jimmy? Your only black Republican friend?" Rhodes kids. Jimmy laughs, but has zero interest in talking politics.
"We welcome everyone here," he says, echoing another of the signs hanging out front.
Try them. Steichen's is open every day of the fair, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It's a cash-only operation, so prepare for that better than you did for your smoking needs.
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