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Cheese curd drama shows that getting a State Fair booth is whey hard

Critics who complain the Fair has been slow to diversify cite the difficulty of breaking into the circle of vendors.

The news that the very first cheese curd booth to grace the Minnesota State Fairgrounds will not be returning in 2017 has stirred up an outcry among its supporters – complete with a petition drive, an open letter aimed at pressuring fair organizers, and its own hashtag (#SaveTheCurds).

Like many State Fair vendors, the Original Deep Fried Cheese Curd stand has been family-run since it opened 42 years ago (two families, in this case).

While Tom Mueller is fighting to take over from his retiring parents, the Fair's general manager tells GoMN the sale of the booth is finished. They're making plans to install a new vendor at the site on Dan Patch Avenue.

The two sides do not agree on all the facts of the dispute, but the fact that there even is a dispute illustrates that a State Fair food booth remains a really hot commodity and the competition to join the club – or stay in it – can be fierce.

The curd disagreement

Fair organizers say it's common for retiring vendors to pass a food booth or other concession on to another family member. State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer tells us all they have to do is apply to have the license transferred. As long as the Fair is satisfied the new operators will run a good business, the transfer is approved.

In his open letter, Tom Mueller says his family turned in one of those applications more than a year ago. He says a letter that arrived this month told him the Fair is going in a different direction.

Hammer says what the Fair received was a letter from Tom Mueller's father saying he and his partners, including Dorothy Skarda, were retiring and were ready to sell their cheese curd stand to the Fair. The Fair agreed, had the booth and its equipment appraised, and paid $67,000 for it, Hammer says.

500 applicants vying for 1 or 2 spots

According to Hammer, since buying the cheese curd booth the Fair has received vendor applications from both the Mueller and Skarda families. But now those families are no longer inside the circle of State Fair vendors. And they've got lots of company on the outside looking in.

"At any given time there are 500 applications for new food vendors," Hammer says. "In a typical year we have one or two openings. So it's a real tough nut to crack."

Some of those who argue the Fair has been sluggish about diversifying its offerings say the nearly closed circle of vendors is part of the problem. That was one of the arguments made by Black Lives Matter St. Paul, which demonstrated at the Fairgrounds during the 2015 get-together.

One change that Hammer says has helped open things up is a policy limiting vendors to just one State Fair booth, although operators who want multiple booths can apply for an exception.

Decisions about who will be invited to fill one of the coveted vacancies are based on things like what product a prospective vendor wants to sell, how much experience they have, and the balance of what the Fair wants to offer. Late April and early May are when licenses are usually sent to the selected vendors, Hammer says. Once they send in a deposit they join the coveted club of State Fair vendors.

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