Church launches campaign to replace ancient fair ovens

Isaac Schultz flips the dining hall's bananas foster French toast.
Isaac Schultz flips the Hamline Church Dining Hall's signature bananas foster French toast on the still-working griddle top of one broken oven in the kitchen.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Like a lot of volunteer projects, staff at the Hamline Church Dining Hall make due with hand-me-down equipment. But it's hard to feed the masses your signature ham loaf when all four of your commercial ovens have gone cold.

The ovens "were here when I came here and it's my understanding we got them used," said Mark Krueger, who has been working at the dining hall for 25 years.

One of just two faith-based dining halls left at the Minnesota State Fair, the Hamline Church Dining Hall also has the distinction of being the fair's oldest food vendor. It's run by the Hamline Church United Methodist congregation, located near the campus of Hamline University and dates back to 1897.

Diners lined up outside the Hamline Church Dining Hall.
Diners lined up outside the Hamline Church Dining Hall before 8 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 at the Minnesota State Fair.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Volunteers serve about 20,000 meals during the fair's 12-day run. And the church's breakfasts are so popular that volunteers frequently have to put out a sign telling people to quit lining up because they're finished serving.

Karen Seay of Minneapolis stopped by this week for a baked chicken and mashed potato lunch, with her husband Ted Allen.

One of the broken ovens at the Hamline Church Dining Hall.
One of the broken ovens at the Hamline Church Dining Hall still has working burners on top, and cooks mashed potatoes and other church supper staples.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"I like it, that it's been here forever," she said. "And that they kind of know what they're doing."

The congregation brought in a backup oven to get them through the fair. But Krueger, who is co-chair of the dining hall committee, said cooks are struggling to keep up with the demand.

"We use the griddle tops for our hash browns, our burgers, French toast, pancakes, but the ovens below, we can't use," said Krueger. "They're just non-functional anymore."

So while servers load up plates of baked chicken, they've also taken up an online collection to keep the church dining hall tradition alive.

Their GoFundMe campaign seeks $25,000 to buy four new stoves for next year's fair, which will be the dining hall's 122nd year of operation. A Mankato company has already donated one practically new stove to the church.

The controls on the ovens haven't been legible for years.
The controls on the Hamline Church Dining Hall ovens haven't been legible for years.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The cost of the ovens is about half of what the church nets at the fair. The money is used to pay for church expenses and fund the Sheridan Story, a program that provides food for Minnesota kids on weekends when they don't have access to school lunch.

The Go Fund Me effort has raised about $3,000, so far.

Faith and fellowship have kept the dining hall going for more than a century, and Krueger said he's counting on that same sentiment to get them through this latest challenge.

"It's a big bridge to cross, and we were hoping it's not a bridge too far," he said.

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