Windy Ross always enjoys pork chops and Dole Whip at the Minnesota State Fair. But she’d like to see more offerings that reflect the racial diversity of the Twin Cities.
“How many corn dogs can you eat?” said Ross, an African-American resident of St. Paul. “There are a lot of vendors, there are a lot of caterers — African-American, Somali-American, Hmong-American — who would love to have stands out here and that would bring diversity to the crowd.”
Millions of people attend the fair each year to watch the livestock, go on adventurous rides and sample deep-fried food. But even as that sea of visitors has grown increasingly diverse along with the state’s population, there’s no measure of how much diversity is represented among the event’s vendors.
State Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero said no one knows how the State Fair is doing on racial diversity “because as best as I can understand, the fair is actively choosing to not ask for, seek and get vendor information.” With a high rate of the same vendors being renewed every year, “you’re going to have a system that’s probably most likely ensuring that there isn’t a lot of diversity in a whole lot of ways.”
General Manager Jerry Hammer said the fair is always looking for new foods, and noted that one of the best vendors in recent years has been Que Viet, which serves Vietnamese egg rolls and wontons. He also highlighted Funky Grits, an African-American-owned soul-food restaurant that the fair recruited to apply and opened at the fair this year.
“We didn’t have anything like it at the fair. We do now,” Hammer said.
Hammer said that the fair cannot legally require people to answer questions about their ethnicity, gender, religion and other categories — and he doesn’t think that asking people to voluntarily disclose such information would give meaningful data.
“Our mission is to provide the best we possibly can for everyone at the fair and with a blind process that means that’s exactly what we’ll get,” he said.
He said there are 500 applications a year for 300 food vendor licenses. Nearly all of the current food vendors have their licenses renewed, with just over 1% turnover, according to Hammer. But 800 more vendors have other types of commercial exhibits, he said, ranging from a car dealership to the state Department of Agriculture, and turnover in that category ranges from 15 to 20% a year.
Katrina Chaney ordered shrimp and grits fritters one recent afternoon at Funky Grits.
“It’s good,” said Chaney, 24, of Brooklyn Park. “I want more soul-food vendors.”
Hatsede Antehun of Lakeville has been coming to the State Fair for 15 years. She noted that the fair had opened an international plaza, but could do more to work with minority business owners.
“I’m sure if they would have had an opportunity, they would have taken part,” said Antehun, 39, who is originally from Ethiopia. “I’m pretty sure a lot of minorities come in and spend just as much money as the white Americans here, so I think they should make an effort to reach out.”
Oby Okoye, who is Nigerian-American, comes to the fair every year with her family. It would be nice, she noted, to see more food from racial minority groups — but she’s still seen plenty of people of color in attendance.
“I don’t think people come here just for the vendors. … They come for a social outlet, to mingle, to have fun,” said Okoye, 43, of Richfield.
Lucero pointed out that Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the country, and that means people need to ask if there are policies in place that create them. Questions about vendors’ demographic backgrounds are asked in all sorts of places.
“Obviously the fair is just an incredible opportunity to be in front of Minnesotans and it generates a tremendous amount of wealth in very little time. … When you’re talking about that kind of money, you really do need to be asking questions about who is included and who is being left out,” Lucero said.
She added: “The fact that something is color blind doesn’t mean it’s not having the impact of being discriminatory.”
Ross, 46, started coming to the fair to take her children on the rides. But she’d like to see more vendors cater to the local African-American population.
“If diversity is a big thing and they’d like to see a variety of people, get the right vendors out here, get the right products out here,” Ross said.
Yet when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recently visited the fair scouting for ideas to take back home, Hammer believed he was impressed when he took him to the food building.
“He was amazed at the diversity. … Most fairs, it’s the usual fried bunch of stuff — hot dogs and burgers and cotton candy — and yes, you can find all that here too, but there’s so much more,” Hammer said.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210