Record numbers big business for State Fair vendorsby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — This year's edition of the Minnesota State Fair drew 1.8 million people, topping the previous all-time record set back in 2001. For fairgoers the event is about fun, for competitors it's about winning, but for about 1,300 merchants at the fair, it's about making a buck.
The fair is a prime place to be when it comes to getting in front of hundreds of thousands of people with open wallets and a willingness to buy.
"It's a great fair, probably the best in the country," Dan Guilfoyle, of New Hampshire, said.
Guilfoyle has been selling fudge at the fair for 13 years. He said it's a sweet spot for finding people with a hankering for half-pound slabs of his confectionary creations.
"They get close to 2 million people every year; that's a good number of people for a 12-day fair," Guilfoyle said. "I sell a good amount of fudge, I really do. It's 12 days of hard work. But believe me it's worth it."
Competition is intense for vendors looking for a spot at the fair, especially if they're trying to sell food. Usually only a half dozen or so spaces are available for new food vendors every year.
To secure a spot at the fair, food vendors pay 12.5 percent of their sales to the fair. Other merchants pay $100 per foot along the front for their space. For instance, a ten-foot booth costs $1,000.
The fair hasn't totaled up its take from merchants this year, but in 2008, the fair pulled in $5.9 million.
Many merchants have been at the fair for decades, including George Wozniak. He's probably best known as the owner of Hobbit Travel, the big Twin Cities travel agency. Wozniak long ago established himself as French fry czar and he's been selling fries at the fair for 37 years, using a three-step cooking method he learned in Ocean City, Maryland.
Usually, Wozniak goes through 45,000 pounds of potatoes a day at his two "Fresh French Fries" booths. Fry sales have been sizzling this year, but he'll only talk about it in terms of pounds, not dollars.
"We're probably selling about 10 percent more, an extra five, six thousand pounds a day," Wozniak said.
Wozniak said the cool weather has helped, but he suspects there's another factor. With the economy in a funk and people really watching their wallets, Wozniak figures many families turned the State Fair into their vacation this summer and decided to spend more freely at the fair as a result.
The fair is fertile hunting grounds for businesses that sell home improvement products. Many people come to the fair looking for ways to fix up their home, or at least they're open to home improvement ideas.
Mike O'Rourke's fireplace inserts, which turn old fireplaces from heat losers into heat producers, is one example.
O'Rourke's firm is Wilkening Fireplace Company of Walker, Minnesota. He's had a booth at the fair for about 20 years. Contacts O'Rourke makes at the fair often turn into sales sooner or later he said.
"It's a fun way to deliver a message about your product," O'Rourke said. "And you see an awful lot of people, not just from Minnesota. We've talked to a number of people from Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas. It draws from all over. So, it's a good way to be centrally located and talk to a lot of people."
The fair is also a good venue for introducing a new product.
"There are a lot of homeowners coming out here, looking to upgrade their homes," Chad Henjum said. Henjum runs Garage Loft, a Burnsville firm that provides storage systems for home garages. This was his second year at the fair. After last year's fair, Henjum said his September sales doubled.
"It's great," he said. "We see thousands of people. It has really helped our business grow and get our name out there."
With nearly two million people attending the fair, there's a good chance even a narrowly-focused business can connect with the kind of people it targets. Maybe it's people seeking customized sunglass clip-ons for their eyeglasses or a sushi maker.
Pete Keiner was at the fair trying to recruit guys to be advisors -- essentially sales agents -- for Man Cave products. Keiner said they're sold at house parties.
"It's similar to Tupperware or Mary Kay," Keiner said.
And what's in the Man Cave product line?
"We like to say we sell heavy and shiny things that attract guys' attention," he said. "We've got beer-can chicken roasters, beer mugs, poker chips, poker sets, grilling gloves."
Keiner's been working at about a ten-foot long booth at the fair, and it's paid off. He said about 20 guys have signed up to sell Man Cave products and Keiner has sold over $3,000 worth of goods.
With that kind of payoff, Keiner is likely to return next year, along with some 2 million fairgoers.
But, Wozniak said food vendors have to dish up food people like. They can't trust they'll succeed just because there are so many people walking around.
- All Things Considered, 09/08/2009, 5:54 p.m.