Among the myths of the Minnesota State Fair is that commercial space is so tight that businesses shouldn’t bother trying to get in.
John Clauson, who sells Rejuvenation massage products at 25 fairs across the country, lived that legend. He spent 30 years trying to get in before being accepted for a spot in the fair’s Merchandise Mart last year.
“It’s almost like someone has to die before the new guy can get in,” he said.
But retailers usually have a far easier time than that. Nearly 40 new nonfood vendors were accepted to spaces on the fairgrounds this year, down from 50 last year. By contrast, turnover in food and beverage concessions is just one to three spots per year.
“Our annual turnover of nonfood vendors generally runs around 25 percent annually grounds-wide,” said Jim Sinclair, deputy general manager at the fair.
One reason food vendors stay longer is the larger investment in the property, which can easily run into six figures.
Lauren VanScoy of Essence One, a new shop in the West End Market that sells handcrafted soaps, estimated her investment this year to be about $10,000 on booth rent, signage and staffing. She never considered applying to the fair because “each year a million people apply and you don’t get in.”
But when some fellow craft people who got into the fair quickly told her that the long wait was an urban myth, VanScoy applied in January and was accepted her first time at bat.
“I feel really lucky to get in this quickly,” she said. “I think it helped that no one else here at the fair does aromatherapy quite like me.” Her soap on a stick called “Minnesoapa” probably didn’t hurt either.
The fair looks for businesses selling something unusual and unrepresented at the fair. “We’ve got plenty of hot tubs and roofing companies,” Sinclair said.
Looking for something new to put in the mix doesn’t mean it will be an “exclusive.” The fair does not seek a vendor to be the only one at the fair selling certain products. It believes that the audience is best served in a competitive marketplace.
Jay Dillon, who co-owns Yardbird patio furniture in St. Louis Park, applied in May and was shocked that the application was accepted within 30 days. “We originally thought, ‘Hey, it’ll be amazing if we can get in [in] five years,’ ” Dillon said.
No vendor is told exactly why they are accepted or rejected, but Dillon said he thinks Yardbird’s niche has to do with being the only patio furniture seller at the fair that makes its products from plastic collected on ocean beaches and then recycled.
“We have no idea if we’ll sell five sets or 500,” said Dillon, who’s on the first floor in the Grandstand. He said the price is right on the rent. A space measuring 20 feet by 20 feet rents for about $2,100, less than half the price of space at a typical home-and-garden show, he said.
Adam Turman, who sells his original artwork designs on T-shirts, drinkware, tea towels and prints, opened up a booth last year. “The response was three times better than what we expected,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘Why didn’t I do this earlier?’ ”
Turman, who expanded his booth space on the second-floor Grandstand this year, took the first space that fair officials offered him. The majority of vendors know they can’t be too choosy. They feel lucky just to be invited.
“I don’t think there is a bad spot at the fair,” said Carrie Fordahl, co-owner of Pappagallo in Edina. She decided to try the fair after her family closed Pappagallo in the Galleria in 2013 and wanted a new way to market their store. It took two years to get accepted. Sales of their Vera Bradley colorful quilted travel bags, handbags and accessories on the first floor of the Grandstand have exceeded the store’s expectations by 50 percent.
Sinclair said spaces usually become available when vendors have trouble securing enough workers for 12 days or for reasons of retirement, sickness and changes to the marketing of a product or service.
Kathleen Mehus of Fargo bowed out this year after 26 years due to her husband’s illness. The booth in Heritage Square, now West End Market, was called Kathleen’s Vintage Boxes. Sales of the handmade boxes with vintage labels were always strong, but it’s the camaraderie with customers and neighboring booths that she misses the most.
“I’m getting two to three messages every day from previous customers wondering where I went,” she said. “I hope we’ll be back.”
But the legend lives on.
Rick Haase of Patina gift shops in the Twin Cities said he’s considered trying to get a booth in the fair but never applied partly because “it would take too long to get in.”
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633