Sara Peterson could hardly believe it when a Minnesota State Fair representative called just two weeks before the fair began and told her that Feed My Starving Children (FMSC) had been awarded a booth at the 2023 Great Minnesota Get-Together.
"I felt like we won the lottery," Peterson said last week as she finished organizing space No. 50 in the West End Market, where the nonprofit planned to sell clay coffee mugs from Haiti, woven grass baskets made by women in Uganda and colorful creations made out of recycled oil drums to raise money to provide meals for kids around the globe.
Reader Thomas McComas said he and his four brothers have long wondered about how to get a State Fair booth.
"We have tons of good ideas, like Boston cream pie deep-fried on a stick," he said. "The process seems like a mystery."
McComas turned to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project, to find out how fair vendors nab the coveted booths.
"It's super-competitive," said Danielle Dullinger, the fair's food and beverage manager. "Turnover is low, so it's a big deal to have a spot open up."
FMSC got its spot when a Las Vegas gallery that specializes in nature-themed art pulled out.
Choosing new exhibitors and last-minute replacements — there are only about 40 this year — is hardly an exact science, Dullinger said, and it's definitely not on a first-come, first-served basis. A State Fair committee annually reviews thousands of applications, which ask vendors to provide references, document their performance at other events and show photos of what their booth or space would look like.
The committee also takes into account how much space a vendor needs, whether utilities are necessary, and to ensure there's not an overabundance of vendors hawking cheese curds. Originality helped Union Hmong Kitchen leap over other applicants and snag a spot in the International Bazaar. A Hmong-style steamed bun stuffed with ground pork, egg and spices will be on the menu.
"It's a great big puzzle," Dullinger said about the selection process. "We can't just put anybody anywhere. And we want something we can't say no to."
Of course, serendipity plays a role, too. Angela Swinford of Georgia applied to sell jewelry this year but didn't think she'd get in. Then she was "delighted and shocked" when the call came in July. Swinford told fair officials she didn't have enough wares because of supply-chain issues, and feared she'd be denied. But during the call, she brought up her other business, Classic City Candy Co.
"The fair said 10 minutes ago they got off a call with a candy vendor who backed out," Swinford said. She sold the fair on her freeze-dried confections, which she described as "a sensory treat," and was given a space on the second floor of the grandstand.
"That was an answer to prayer," Swinford said. "Minnesota is the legendary gold standard. So much commerce happens there."
More than 95% of exhibit and food spaces are full, and subletting is not allowed, Dullinger said. That means many vendors, once in, stay for a lifetime. Rusty Grocurth of Tampa, Fla., came to what he calls one of the top seven events in the country 25 years ago and has operated the Super Dog stand on Chambers Street ever since.
"If you leave, you leave," he said, knowing how difficult it would be to get back in. "They are very specific [in what they want]."
Food vendors pay 15% of gross receipts as rent and must cover their utilities costs. Those selling merchandise or exhibiting art pay $130 per linear foot, with an extra charge for those on corners where foot traffic is higher.
Peterson, who recalled that her first job as a teen was at the Dairy Building, said the $1,600 that FMSC will pay for its booth will be well worth the exposure.
"When we applied, we joked and said, 'It would be a big thing if we could get into the State Fair,' " Peterson said. "We are just over the top."