Infrequently Asked Fair Questions: What happens to all the money at the State Fair?

People stand at a counter inside a fair building
Fairgoers wait in line at the Dairy Goodness counter inside the Minnesota State Fair Dairy Building on Aug. 25.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

There’s a lot of money at the fair. Beyond the cash and cards used by visitors, vendors have to pay for their business spaces. In this edition of Infrequently Asked Questions, MPR News Reporter Tim Nelson traces the fair-wide money flow.

How much the fair makes a year?

First, it’s not the same every year. There are a lot of moving financial parts to the fair, including everything from off-season rentals to retirement plan investments. But for instance, in the last big pre-pandemic year, the fair took in about $63 million in revenue. The biggest chunk of this comes from the tickets that more than 2 million people buy. The ticket price ranged from $12 to $17 this year.

In 2019, ticket sales totaled about $40 million. It costs the fair more than that to open the gates, with everything from manure removal to staffing the ticket booths to free park and ride bus transportation.

Just a side note here on the tickets: Back in the day, they used to actually count the tickets — and calculate the daily attendance by weighing the ticket stubs. With a scale. That’s how many there were. Now, every ticket, paper and electronic, has a bar code that gets scanned.

The next biggest chunk of fair money comes from what are called activities: concessions, booth rental, animal forage fees, exhibit licenses — a ton of different categories all contribute to the fair’s bottom line in slightly different ways.

What do vendors pay?

They agree to pay 15 percent commission. There’s no rent, the fees just come off the top of their revenue.

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How does the fair know how much these folks are taking in?

That is a very good question. Because strictly speaking, they don’t. And that is one of the invisible secrets of the State Fair. I put that same question to general manager Jerry Hammer. Here’s what he told me:

“We do have auditors that go around booth to booth during the fair and they will go over to each stand at the fair two, three or four times, at different times of day, different days of the week just to get a good handle on [the income]. Unless you’re a brand new vendor, we've got a really good long history so we know what to expect based on what's going on elsewhere.”

So, while you are noshing on that corn dog – there may very well be someone standing there, watching you do it and counting. There is really such a thing as a State Fair Auditor.

So, the vendors just add up their sales and hand over 15 percent at the end of the fair?

Actually, they have to do it: Every. Single. Day. The fair doesn’t want to get into the details, for security reasons, but all these vendors have to literally check in, in person and hand over the money daily. That’s how the fair monitors the flow of money and makes sure that vendors don’t forget, or buy something and not have the money to pay at the end.

There are slightly more than 300 food stands, they sell between $4 million to $5.5 million of product a day and they have to give the fair its cut. In person. Every day.

And what about stands that don’t sell food?

There’s a couple different categories. A shop that sells shirts or hats or cat toys or any merchandise pays a flat fee per foot of frontage they have — so that’s $130 a foot. So a 10-foot booth would pay $1,300 for the whole fair. Booths that don’t actually stock what they sell, like home improvement gear or pickup trucks, they pay a little less and non-profits and educational exhibits get an even bigger discount — a little under $100 a foot.

There are agreements for midway rides and all kinds of other variations, but that’s basically how it works. And it’s a lot of money, but remember: Target corporation made $106 billion last year with about 19 hundred stores — for about $55 million of revenue a year per store. So for all the superlatives the fair is probably not that different from a Super Target — just open only for a week and a half.