Since its inception in 1859, the Minnesota State Fair has only been canceled six times, due to wars, national health crises, and one scheduling conflict. Most years, Great Minnesota Get Together is second to none in daily attendance numbers. In 2019, more than 2 million visitors gorged themselves on five dollar strips of fat bacon and overflowing buckets of cookies. The nonprofit fair, which does not receive any state funding, relies on tickets sales, non-fair events, licensing of commercial exhibit spaces and funding from the Minnesota State Fair Foundation to cover operating costs and keep the beloved fair going.
According to State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer, the cancelation in 2020 due to COVID 19 resulted in an operating loss of $16.2 million. While two State Fair Food Parades held on the fairgrounds last summer helped financially and allowed fair fanatics to get a truncated fried food fix, the 2021 season, nicknamed the Great Minnesota Get-Back Together, will be crucial to the fair’s survival.
To get everyone psyched for this year’s fair, a preview was held on Memorial Day Weekend, aptly named Kickoff to Summer at the Fair. The event featured food, entertainment, and shopping. Over the five-day, sold-out event 70,000 fair fans happy-danced their way through the center of the grounds. It wasn’t two million visitors, but every little bit helps vendors who have suffered great losses from last year’s cancellation.
Fan favorite Lift Bridge Brewery launched the craft beer craze at the fair in 2013 with its Mini Donut Beer at Ball Park Café, and the fair has become a key income channel for the brewery. “The State Fair is not only one of our top sales opportunities each year,” said Brad Glynn, Co-owner and VP of marketing at Lift Bridge. “It is the biggest local marketing opportunity for us each year with so many potential eyes and mouths on our product. 2020 was a missed opportunity to market to the millions of people from all around the midwest.”
Produce Exchange, which has a location inside Midtown Global Market, saw its State Fair losses compounded during last summer’s social justice demonstrations. “Without PPP I would be gone,” Owner Kevin Hannigan said. “The pandemic plus the social crisis after George Floyd’s murder has been very bad.”
But things are looking up. “Kickoff to Summer was the most fun and best event ever at the fair,” Hannigan said. “I think the future looks bright with the tweaks we have made. This event was huge for us financially and emotionally. People showed us they care a lot about quality and simple pleasures.”
After making the festival circuit rounds since 2011, Minnesnowii Shave Ice became a huge hit after scoring a coveted spot at the State Fair a few years ago. Previous festival experience helped Owner Jason Giandalia stay agile. “Summer of 2020 was the year of the pivot. We setup at beaches, neighborhoods, grocery stores and mall parking lots. Oftentimes we paired up with other food vendors for a make-shift food truck court,” he explained. “Believe it or not, it was still a decent summer. People were still showing up and supporting us.”
“I love everything about the state fair. The people, the energy, and the camaraderie,” Giandalia said. “It was a long year and a half for all of us. The Minnesota State Fair is always such a positive atmosphere. It’s going to feel great getting back to somewhat of a normalcy. I mean where else can you go and share cookies with a random stranger?”
While some may not be quiet in a sharing-food-with-a-total-stranger place yet, one thing is for sure. Kickoff to Summer at the Fair has proven that we are all eager to get out there and stand in long lines for meat on a stick with a couple million of fellow fair fans.
The 2021 Minnesota State Fair will run August 26 through Labor Day, September 6.