During the first day of the Minnesota State Fair 2019, new fair vendor Funky Grits had sold over 1,800 orders of shrimp and grits fritters through its newly constructed stall inside the Food Building.
Orders of three sell for $5. As soon as fairgoers hand over the money, the grits seem to appear instantaneously. It’s the kind of efficiency owner Jared Brewington has lost sleep to create.
The morning hours of August 22 – the first of the 12-day Minnesota State Fair – began like any new food operation: technical problems. The ventilation hood had issues and the crew scrambled to get it running in time. Brewington tried to tackle it on his own. He was already drenched in sweat by the time he started greeting the first customers.
He had spoken to several vendors in the Food Building to gauge what to expect. Fair veterans gave him numbers, averages, the flow of foot traffic, and other things, but you never know until you’re in it. For the first two days of the Fair, Brewington was putting in 16 hour shifts.
“I’ve realized that in this building, it’s not feast or famine,” he grins, “it’s feast or light feast.”
A Little Help From My Friends
On Day Two of the fair, Funky Grits did even better, amidst talks of a slow day. In the evening, Brent Frederick, co-founder of the renowned Minneapolis restaurant group Jester Concepts, worked a shift at the stand.
“He’s my mentor,” said Brewington, “I couldn’t be here without Brent.”
The two men meet monthly with others in a private business group in which they talk about the challenges and successes associated with running a business.
As Brewington continued to talk about his initial foray into the State Fair, it’s clear that people like Frederick made this journey possible.
Hidden away behind the Funky Grits vendor stand is Wes Castelsky, former executive chef and head of research and development for Jack Link’s Beef Jerky. “Castelsky helped us with our formulation from the beginning: data, feedback, how the fritters are flowing, and how they’re frying. It’s cool to have someone with such a strong food science background,” said Brewington. He laughs as he recalls the intense spreadsheets that Castelsky would send, breaking down the logistics of serving mass amounts of fritters.
He then goes on to mention Kevin LaMere, a kitchen space consultant from Horizon Equipment who initially helped with the brick-and-mortar rendition of Funky Grits, but went on to sketch out their fair vendor space too.
But the people who have made the biggest difference so far are the employees behind the counter. The two girls on the register are interns through YouthLink, which is a Minnesota-based organization that gives opportunities to young people who have faced homelessness. Behind the two girls are their friends, the son of Brewington’s contractor, and more.
It was that crew who welcomed fairgoers and an onslaught of critics all clamoring to pass judgement on the new food. Rick Nelson from the Star Tribune said, “A fab new deep-fried entry. Tons of cheddar and cornmeal flavor (and a delightful lingering spice kick).” Stephanie March of Mpls./St. Paul Magazine recommended ordering the, “Sassy little grits balls.” The Pioneer Press loved the cheesy interior with the spicy dipping sauce, and KARE 11, the NBC affiliate profiled the operation. The grits are officially a hit.
Far from the Fair
Forty miles southwest of the Twin Cities, Brewington lives on an idyllic farm in Cologne with his wife Jenn and his daughter Josephine (whom he lovingly refers to as his “boss”). After a long day of work, he returns to these sacred grounds to bask in silence, take in the open acreage, and ride his golf cart.
Ever since his first job at Wendy’s at the age of 16, Brewington has been working non-stop on a series of seemingly unrelated ventures that all led to Funky Grits. Brewington’s resume is that of a renaissance man: running a construction company, renewable energy consultant, data telecommunications officer, real estate broker, drumming in a band, milking cows at 4 am, and playing bartend.
It was working behind the bar at Chatters in Monticello (because he grew bored once he stopped playing in a band) that crystallized his love for restaurant industry work. It also proved to be a place of needed respite during hard times.
“That bar saved my heart and soul,” he said. “It was while working there that I experienced my divorce. But it was the love and camaraderie of that environment that saved me.”
He soon became obsessed with the hospitality industry’s philosophy on customer service.
“You know, there’s this great quote from a writer who said food service is the only manufacturing industry where you get to watch the consumer use the product,” he said, soon admitting that “I never remembered who said that because it was such a profound statement.”
Being able to watch, hear, and adapt to everything that happens in a customer service environment became Brewington’s passion. He eventually found someone who loved the life as much as him: his now-wife, Jenn. She worked at that same bar while also pursuing her master’s degree. Today, she works for the City of Shakopee as an economic development officer while still retaining serving jobs in Excelsior and Kenwood.
“She’s a mercenary,” he says through his trademark, goofy grin.
Stay tuned for the final piece of this profile on Jared Brewington, Funky Grits, and their first year at the Minnesota State Fair.