State Fair business is called good, not gold

Grilling steaks
Ryan Nilo grills steaks at Mancini's Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, during the restaurant's first year at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

John Mancini runs one of the Twin Cities' most popular restaurants. Still, it took him more than a decade to grab a vendor spot at the Minnesota State Fair.

His wish came true this year after a space opened on Carnes Avenue. Mancini and his brother Pat have spent a lot -- they won't say how much -- on stone work, stainless steel appliances and other renovations to bring Mancini's Char House to the fairgrounds.

Will they make money? "I'll let you know Labor Day," he said.

The Great Minnesota Get Together draws nearly 2 million people every summer. That foot traffic makes it a choice location for nearly 800 businesses hawking everything from corn dogs to tractors. But profits don't come easy. Fair officials say it's a myth that food vendors here earn a year's worth of income in 12 days.

"You get a food booth at the fair, you spend the rest of the year counting your money and waiting for the next fair. That's just really not true," said Dennis Larson, who oversees the fair's food and beverage vendors.

Businesses pay a hefty cost to be there. Vendors pay the fair 15 percent of their food sales; 18.5 percent for beer sales. There are also expenses for labor, supplies and other costs, as well as taxes.

The fair took in $10 million from all businesses operating in 2012. About half of that came from food, beverage and beer vendors.

John Mancini and daughter, Olivia
John Mancini holds his daughter, Olivia, outside the new Mancini's restaurant at the Minnesota State Fair.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

"The reality is a typical or medium booth here will do about $55,000 gross in sales. But that's gross," Larson said. "They have to pay sales tax. They have to pay us 15 percent. A good operator could bring home maybe 25 percent ... so he's going to make a few thousand dollars. You're not going to live on that."

Most vendors have other jobs or travel the state fair circuit around the county.

Others, like Patti Peterson and her husband, Charles, see the fair as a chance to make some money on the side. Their restaurant, Peterson's Pork Chops, opens for the fair and a car show at the fairgrounds.

"We come out in the black," Patti Peterson said. "Our daughter is, like, in her seventh year of college. So it's been helping pay for that. Helps pay for our fun a little."

Each August, the Petersons have to get the big trailer that houses their restaurant to the fair and set it up. And they have to recruit about 40 workers to cook and serve chops and chicken.

How does she describe workdays that start at about 6 in the morning and end about 1 a.m. the next morning?

"Twelve days of hell."

Despite the grind, the Petersons say they really do enjoy the fair, although the money isn't good enough for them to bust their chops at other fairs.

Sharing a steak sandwich
Chuck LeFebvre and his wife, Pat, enjoy a steak sandwich at Mancini's Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, during the restaurant's first year at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We tried other venues, when we first started back in the early '90s," Patti Peterson said. "But it's a lot of work for little profit."

Few vendors have worked the fair as long as Steichen's Grocery Store & Deli, down an alley near the Poultry Barn. The shop first opened for the 1933 fair.

Jimmy Steichen started working at the family's store in the 1960s and now runs it. He's pretty much the only source at the fair for things like aspirin and jugs of milk.

Steichen says he's not getting rich on fair business. But he opens up every year anyway, perhaps not so much for the money but more for the tradition and history.

Mancini feels the same way about the fair.

"Mancini's got a lot of history. The fair has a lot of history," he said. "It's a good combination."

The Carnes Avenue site will run only during the fair and maybe a few other events. Mancini hopes he'll win new customers for his restaurant in St. Paul. But being at the fair means more than the chance to sell steak sandwiches and garlic toast.

"I always as a kid wanted to work out here, wanted to run something," he said. "The dream is coming now."

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