Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Behind the scenes of the new State Fair foods: How do vendors get picked?

Strawberries and Cream Waffle Stick
Strawberries and Cream Waffle Stick: Belgian waffle filled with strawberry shortcake cookie dough, topped with whipped cream and strawberry sauce, and served on-a-stick. Served at Waffle Chix on Judson Avenue between Liggett and Clough streets.
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair

Tuesday was one of the most anticipated days of the summer for Minnesotans: the day that the State Fair announces the list of new foods for 2024. It included 33 official new foods and six new vendors selling a variety of foods from dill pickle tater tots to grilled purple sticky rice (on a stick!).

But how does someone get a coveted spot to sell food at the fair? Maria Hayden is a spokesperson for the Minnesota State Fair and she joined Minnesota Now to explain how many submissions the selection committee ate their way through, and how the new vendors made the cut.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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How many submissions did the selection committee have to wade through (or I should say eat their way through) this year?

For our official new foods list this year, I believe there were just over 100 official new food submissions this year. And we were able to whittle that down to our 33 official new foods.

Who gets to taste the food?

Our new foods committee is made up of a number of different State Fair staff members. It represents our sales department, our marketing department, as well as a few members from our other departments that maybe don’t look at it from a sales perspective or a marketing perspective, they’re just looking at as a fair guest.

They’re able to reflect their personal opinions and really give us a good selection of different people to weigh in on what they think will be a good new food. So, it’s a great different makeup on our new foods committee.

We’re able to sample some applications. Not all vendors come in and sample but we’re able to have a good selection so that we can try a diverse array of different applications each year.

So not all the foods are tasted?

Yeah, that’s correct. We don’t require samples, as a lot of the vendors maybe aren’t able to prepare their samples, might not be able to travel with them or might be out of state. We want to make sure all of our vendors here at the Minnesota State Fair are able to apply and get a fair shot, so samples are optional.

We do get to try some of them, which is always fun. We love to sample and we love to be able to try different things that are brought in but certainly not a requirement.

So sometimes you take a bit of a flyer on a food? Because if you haven't had a chance to taste it, you're just kind of hoping that other folks will like it, in a sense?

Yeah, I suppose samples do help. But we do have other criteria that we look at. We have them submit a photo and a thorough description. If we have any questions, our food and beverage manager is able to communicate thoroughly with vendors.

So, it really is quite a thorough process of vetting. Not only do we try the samples when we can, but we also go through the application. We look at some of the other foods that are already present on the fairgrounds, what ingredients might be in the dish and if we think that’ll appeal to different fair guests.

It’s really a comprehensive look at what we think will make the best to list. We don’t just look at foods as individuals, we kind of look at the list as a whole and want to make sure that there is something for everyone.

We take a look at dietary needs, making sure we have sweets, savories and a diverse representation of different vendors. We have all sorts of different offerings for no matter what your taste palette is: if you like pickles, don’t like pickles, prefer vegan food versus meat. We like to have a really good selection available on this list of 33.

This year there are a number of non-American cuisine entries of the six new vendors. Was that on purpose?

We strive to represent our state of Minnesota. We’re called the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.” We like to represent Minnesota as a whole. This year we do have a focus on global cuisines with many of our new foods.

We’re excited to have Kosharina joining us, one really great example of an operator who has great experience in the food and beverage industry, been around for a long time and has been operating mobile trailers for a lot of her career.

They’re able to bring a brand-new concept of this Kosharina trailer and booth to the Minnesota State Fair and bring kosher and Egyptian street food to our fair guests. Our food and beverage team and our Minnesota State Fair team as a whole work with different community partners and monitor what’s going on in the local community.

We take a look at what’s happening in our community, what is going on at other events and state fairs throughout the country and really see who’s able to fit in the complex puzzle of what spots we have available each year.

I’ve often heard that it is a very difficult thing to become a state fair food vendor or that there’s a wait list. Is that right or wrong?

So, parts of it are right. I can dispel the waitlist rumor, we do not have any sort of waiting list. It’s not like you’re next in line, you’ve been waiting for 30 years, it’s your turn. There’s no sort of that happening. But it is a very competitive process to become a vendor at the Minnesota State Fair, mostly because we don’t see a lot of turnovers.

We have a lot of vendors that are here for a really long time. We’re fortunate that a lot of our vendors return year to year, but every year we do have a few retirements, some vendors may choose not to return to the fair for scheduling reasons, or whatever it may be and we will have spots open up.

This year, we were able to accommodate six new vendors. Some years it’s more, some years it’s less. But you know, in the grand scheme of things, out of 300 different food vendors, six really isn’t a lot. It is quite competitive when we do have openings. So, we take a look at kind of a holistic approach of what we have available that year.

I noticed that there aren’t as many foods on a stick. Are foods on a stick not as cool as they used to be?

I think everyone loves a classic food on a stick. I would say there’s not really sort of any intentionality behind that. I think we just see the vendors submit what’s trending in the world and in our community.

One of the things that I noticed particularly is cookie butter that was submitted this year with two of our new foods. It’s been a very trending flavor. I know it’s carried in grocery stores and it's been very popular for desserts. So that’s a good example of just something that is trending in our world, community and online that vendors latch on to.

I think year to year it really changes. Maybe this year, food on a stick wasn’t as significant as it has been in previous years, but it could come back if there’s a resurgence.

Just recently, we kind of coined it the “year of the pickle.” We had a whole lot of different pickle flavored things, so it really evolves from year to year. There’s no kind of metric. It's kind of whatever is popular and whatever we think fair guests will really latch on to.

Do you have a food that you're looking forward to tasting?

I was fortunate to be on the new foods committee this year. There, I was able to sample quite a few of them. I am a big pickle person. I know there’s a lot of debate, especially around to the pickle pizza, which was a new food in previous years, about if pickle belongs on certain things. But I love anything pickle, so the dill pickle tots is a big one for me.

I think that that’s just super simple and delicious. If you’re a big fan of the dill pickle potato chips, that’s a great one.

I am super excited to try the koshari from Kosharina, one of the new vendors this year. It’s an Egyptian street food and I’m personally a big foodie. I love to try different things, but I’ve never tried koshari. So, I’m super excited that that will be here at the fair and I’m interested to see how it is and experience something new.

The new drink list is coming out soon right?

Yes, our specialty sips will be coming later this summer. That’s always highly anticipated as well. It’s always fun to see what our vendors in partnership with local breweries come up with on that one.