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St. Paul Roundup: MN Fair’s Wait List

Nikki Hines

One way we get through long winters is with thoughts of food, fun and sun, which can only mean the Minnesota State Fair. In 2019 food vendors will be working with someone new at the fair, following the recent retirement of longtime employee Dennis Larson.

But Nikki Hines, who is taking over food vendor licensing, is a familiar face to food sellers for the roughly 150 non-fair events and rentals held during the rest of the year. 

Hines has worked for the state fair since 1997, always in the sales and exhibits department. Her resume reads like a quick fairgrounds tour, including work with attractions such as the Midway, Kidway, Adventure Park and Ye Old Mill. 

“I just love working with all of our vendors,” she said. Vendors come from all over the United States to participate in the fair.

She’ll be working on licensing and the selection of new food and beverage vendors. The fair has its own licensing process, working closely with the state.

The annual event—August 22 to September 2 this year—has about 300 food vendors, from large permanent buildings to small portable stands. The vendor lineup is reviewed annually, Hines said. There’s always a waiting list of prospective vendors who go through an application process, which includes providing details about their concept. Vendors can wait for years for a spot.

Fair staff look at available space and consider vendor options using set criteria. Foodservice experience is one must, Hines said. The potential food and beverage offerings are weighed against fair demographics. New vendors come in as space allows. There’s no set timeline for when a current food vendor can opt out of future fairs. It can happen after the fair ends, or during the year.

Every food and beverage vendor has a fair-approved menu of items to sell. Hines said it’s important for the fair to offer something for all tastes, from those who like a sugar fix to those who want vegan, gluten-free and healthy fare.

In May a new-foods committee made of staff from different fair departments reviews between 30 to 75 prospective submissions from vendors, to pick what will be featured that year. 

Last year’s new selections included blueberry rhubarb cobbler from the Farmers Union Coffee Shop, the Speakeasy’s firecracker shrimp stuffed avocado and French Meadow Bakery & Cafe’s Earth Wings, a vegan offering. More than 30 foods were chosen last year, from both new and veteran vendors.

Vendors typically prepare and photograph their submissions. Most bring samples for the committee to try. 

“People get really creative,” Hines said. The goal is to have as many new items as possible. 

And even so, there are trends. “One year we had the year of sriracha,” she said. “And bacon is always a big one.” The jury is still out on what 2019’s food trend is. 

Watch for the new foods list to roll out in June. 

St. Paul Roundup

The Underground Music Café is being taken over by the Eggroll Queen, a popular food truck, and its owner-operator. Mai Vang will bring her mix of American and Asian fusion fare to the space, and sell her popular egg rolls. Work is underway on the new space, and the food truck will continue.

Lunds and Byerlys is eyeing a Grand Avenue spot for a grocery store as part of a mixed-use development. Part of the property eyed for redevelopment was a Knowlan’s grocery years ago, and before that it was owned locally by Klein’s and Rooney’s grocery stores.

Bark and the Bite, which lost its shared space in a Northeast Minneapolis convenience store after an October 2018 fire, is coming to the former Heirloom spot near Cretin and Marshall avenues in Merriam Park. Heirloom closed last year after less than three years. Bark and the Bite is hoping to bring an expanded menu of smoked meat offerings for eating in and carryout. Look for an April opening.

Speaking of fires, it may be several months before Highland Village’s Cleveland Wok is able to reopen after a fire earlier this year. And Merriam Park mainstay Taste of Thailand is temporally closed to address some mechanical system issues that need repair.

In Lowertown, Elephant Bar is lumbering toward the old Hygge spot as a new concept by chef Lucas Almendinger, formerly of the Co-op Creamery Café. Among the offerings will be Indian-themed, fine-dining fare, carryout and pastries and coffee in the morning. This outpost is independent of the Elephant bar chain in the Western United States. 

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