State Fair vendors hope to make lemonade from COVID's lemons

pickle palace workers at the state fair
Isabella, Anibella and Stacy Barona are part of the family that owns the Giant Slide and several other concessions at the Minnesota State Fair. The fair's cancellation in 2020 forced them to expand their concession operations to parking lots and other shows to keep the family business going. Anibella came up with a new deep fried pickle recipe, and they built the Pickle Palace food trailer around it.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Anibella Barona, is semi-famous. But not for her deep-fried pickle recipe, at least not yet.

Her grandfather, Fred Pitroff, invented the Giant Slide, and the family's been running the ride at the Minnesota and Wisconsin state fairs for decades. The family business also runs cheese on a stick and fresh squeezed lemonade stands.

But not last year. Anibella's mom, Stacy Barona has worked at the Minnesota State Fair for more than 40 years. She remembers hearing in May 2020 that COVID-19 was ending that unbroken streak.

"My heart really sunk. I was kind of like, okay, we're not going to have Fair. We're not going to have any income. We need to figure this out right now," Stacy Barona said.

And she started over from scratch.

"I said, we're getting the lemonade cart out, and maybe we'll do some farmer's markets. Maybe we can hook up with their business. Just at least do lemonade somewhere.”

Days later she was selling lemonade, cheese curds and hot dogs in the Roseville VFW parking lot. It turned out fair food fared pretty well.

"We had like lines, social distance lines, all the way down the block, six feet apart," she said.

Stacy and her daughters bought a used food trailer, and tried to figure out a niche.

"I wasn't really a pickle fan myself," said daughter Isabella Barona. "But we have a little secret ingredient in there that I think makes the pickles and people love them."

And that's what's kept the family going. The Pickle Palace didn't actually make it to the Fair this year — it got built too late. But like many other vendors, the Giant Slide family improvised, and responded and survived.

The Minnesota State Fair opens its gates Thursday for the first time since 2019. Many will be glad to get back to the end-of-summer tradition, after one of the most trying years of their lifetimes.

Still some can't, or won't, be back. A number of state agencies are skipping the fair, as are some live broadcasters, including MPR.

The River Raft Ride won't run this year and the Go Carts and the Giant Sing Along are out. And the event at the just-built North End Event Center? A COVID vaccination clinic, with $100 gift cards for the first 3,600 customers.

Just some reminders of the pandemic year that led to the deaths of at least 7,782 Minnesotans.

Fair spokesperson Danielle Dullinger said about 150 vendors and exhibitors opted out of this year's fair, more than 75 or 100 in a typical year. After the fair announced it would not impose a mask or vaccine mandate, about a half dozen pulled out, as did Grandstand act Low Cut Connie.

"But we've also added 61 brand new vendors this year," Dullinger said.

State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer said he understands COVID poses risks, and that some are displeased with the decision to go forward without more robust protections. He said fair officials are trying to be honest about what they can practically enforce. They encourage people to wear masks indoors and in crowds.

The 2020 shutdown cost $16 million in revenue. Hammer says if the fair becomes a super-spreader event and has to close early, the consequences will be much more dire.

Despite the current situation, one vendor hopes to reach many more customers.

Rosa Mensah, a nursing assistant from Brooklyn Park, makes bold patterned clothes with her sister. Mensah, originally from Ghana, is ready to make the leap from craft shows to the big time with her Batakali Fashions booth in the International Bazaar.

woman with textiles at the state fair
Rosa Mensah stocking her Batakali Fashion Design booth at the Minnesota State Fair's International Bazaar on Tuesday in preparation for the 2021 fair opening.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

“I have skirts, I have jewelry, I have children's clothing, bags. Nice stuff, you know," Mensah said. "People are telling me it’s a great show, so I'm looking forward to it."

Mensah is vaccinated. She's got a box of masks at her side. And she's ready.

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