Every year, during those last days of summer, the whole family pitched in, including Bahr. Well, once he was old enough to contribute.
“I was probably five or six years old,” said Bahr. “As soon as Dad could get me standing on a milk crate, he’d put me on one and I’d be doing the dishes. We used to do things like hot beef commercials, hot turkey commercials, and served them on real plates, with real silverware, real coffee cups,” he said.
Fairgoers with a strong recall ability will remember when the Lunch Box stood on the site now occupied by the Merchandise Mart. The Bahrs moved their tidy business to its current location sometime in the early 1970s; no one can remember the exact date.
"What you remember is the weather," said Bahr. "It's the rainy fairs – this year is turning out to be kind of rainy – and the hot fairs, like the one we had a few years ago. That's what you remember."
The Lunch Box is a waning fairgrounds breed: a short-order operation that hums with a small cadre of super-friendly servers and boasts two rows of outdoor (but semi-sheltered) counter seats. Need to rest your fairgrounds-punished feet? This is the place.
In 1991, Bahr (who lives in the Spicer-New London area and spends his non-fair time in the fertilizer business, servicing farms in central and southern Minnesota) and his wife Lori bought the place, and family traditions have continued. The couple’s four daughters – and now six of their grandchildren –have all worked at the Lunch Box.
The elder Bahrs are now in their eighties, and they’re still coming to the fair. Bev handles the stand’s bookkeeping.
“And Dad is here every morning at 4:30 with Mom,” said Bahr. “He gets the grill going, he gets the fryers going. He used to be able to run this place by himself, I’m telling you. But we’ve made him take it easy. He’s so used to going ninety miles an hour. That’s where we all get it from.”
The Lunch Box represents a different fair era, before the drive to create an Instagram-grabbing food item. Instead, the focus is on reliable, familiar, reasonably priced fare, served with a smile by a staff of about 25 people.
After breakfast – scrambled eggs, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, plus a number of kid-friendly options – the tiny kitchen keeps busy with grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs and burgers. Classic, no-fuss burgers.
The sizzling quarter-pound patties (“fresh, not frozen,” said Bahr) are fashioned from Minnesota-raised beef. They’re cooked to order – no heat lamps here – and routinely taken to a crowd-pleasing medium on the kitchen’s well-seasoned grill. I think I waited five minutes, tops, once I placed my order.
Add-ons follow the same no-complications format: American cheese and raw or grilled onions. The sesame seed-flecked buns hail from Grandma’s Bakery, and they perform as required, although toasting them would be an improvement.
That’s it. This substantial burger is simplicity itself, a refreshing alternative to the fair’s overwhelming culinary cacophony. That's a formula that has been making fairgoers happy for 56 years.
Fries: An additional $2.75, if purchased with a burger. They’re a frozen-and-fried product, but a decent one, yielding long, thin-ish, golden fries and served in a generous, State Fair-sized portion.
Also at the fair: Check out my 2017 Burger Friday visit to another Minnesota State Fair diner, the Midway Mens Club (pictured, above) which also happens to be another member of the fair's diner-style food operations. You can find it here.
Address book: Cooper St. at Dan Patch Av. The 2018 Minnesota State Fair closed Sept. 3.
Calendar note: Burger Friday is going on vacation and will return Sept. 28.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.