Spoiler alert: I didn’t die at the Minnesota State Fair. (Unless you count my increased risk of heart attack due to my consuming high levels of deep-fried foods on a stick.)
Also, throughout this post, I show photos of the different fair food I tried. Just for fun, see if you can guess each kind of food. Answers are at the bottom.
Adventures of Mrs. Pastor: Episode 3: Part 2 – A Fair to Remember
This year, the fair accommodated a record-setting 1,943,719 people over 12 days. I am pretty sure we served root beer to at least a million of those people. The Sunderland clan told me that the best part of my job would be the people watching. They were right.
On my first shift at the fair, I left a ridiculous 2 ½ hours early because I was worried about getting to the fair on-time. Getting to the fair is the trickiest part of the job.
Every day, I drove to a shady, undisclosed employee parking lot in the middle of nowheresville St. Paul. Once there, I would wait in line for a parking spot (because it was always full). If the line was too long, they would send me on my way with a good luck and a park at your own risk. Then I would have to a) find parking near the warehouses a few block away – even shadier than the employee lot, and b) remember where I parked later that night. Then I needed to find my way back to the lot in order to wait for the employee shuttle bus to arrive. Let’s just say I walked quickly and carried my keys between my knuckles. (I’m not sure how that helps, but just don’t ever come up behind me in a dark alley hoping to scare me. We may both end up in the ER.)
My favorite bus driver had the look of a sweet, old lady and the temperament of the Hulk. I got to ride with her twice. I wonder if road rage was a qualification in her job description. Oddly enough, her yelling and overuse of the horn made me feel safe and secure.
The inside of the employee shuttle bus smelled like a blend of cotton candy, canola oil, and sweat. The passengers I road with were mostly security guards, Sweet Martha’s cookie sellers, Tiny Tim’s Donut vendors, Lions Club volunteers, ticket takers, and lost drunks wanting a free ride. I am not gonna lie. I think us “legitimate” riders tolerated the rude, drunk stowaways because when we finally made it back to the employee lot at midnight, it was secretly amusing to watch our offensive guests wonder where in the world they had ended up. The bus did get a little rowdy a few times, but that was mainly due to our bus driver.
As I mentioned in my last post, I worked at the Galaxy of Drinks booth. The Galaxy of Drinks is located across from Coasters beer garden and next to the entrance of the Midway. The Midway is the amusement ride and arcade area of the fair.
I figured out pretty quickly that the average age of employees working the fair is around 17 years old, making me super old. So when people saw me in the booth serving up their root beer, they would assume one of two things: either 1) I own the concessions stand and am very rich because I am charging them $2 for their soda, or 2) I am someone’s mom (which is partly true).
One kid even called me the “root beer mom.” (I am totally making that into a button pin for myself.)
At the beginning of every evening shift, I would walk into the confined quarters of our 4’x4’ booth. The kids working the booth were always happy to see me. Not because I was their favorite root beer mom, but because my arrival meant that they could finally go home.
My shift was 4pm to close. From 4pm to about 8pm the fair is happy and wonderful. Cheerful faces smiling in the window, saying please and thank you and can you make me a slushy with more than one flavor? And what’s a cow float? And is this your real job? No, I am a preschool teacher. No way! I am too! And have you been workin’ the fair long?
Some of our customers were 4-H-ers wanting root beer floats, who stick out like sore thumbs with their long blond braids and bejeweled jeans and boots with spurs. But they own the place and love sharing their animal stories. Then there are dads holding up their kids so junior can choose between a twirly pop or a twist pop. Moms pushing strollers and giving into demands for a Fairborn souvenir cup. It’s basically root beer, rainbows, and lollipops for the first half of my shift.
My favorite thing to do was talk to customers about the root beer. I weaved together pieces of the Sunderland root beer history that I had heard the family members share. Is the root beer special? Why yes it is! I am so glad you asked. The Sunderland family has been selling this special recipe root beer at the fair for 50 years. It’s called Challenge root beer. No, you can’t get it anywhere else, only at the fair. People love a good story. And they love a family-owned business.
But then the clock strikes 8 o’clock. Families with small children scatter and the cops start rolling into their designated spots. Because the Midway after 8pm is a bit sketchy. Kind of like Gotham City. Besides the crazed excitement of teenagers and young adults crowding like mosh pits everywhere, there are the real crazies.
One night I discovered a man being hand-cuffed just outside our booth. (I think I’ll take the trash out later.) Another night a crazed man, high on meth, ran up to us dancing in his fringed mini-skirt and combat boots, asking a million indiscernible questions and not waiting for answers. Then just as fast as he appeared, he was off screaming through the night, picking up every piece of trash he could see.
We were asked if we sold eggs, milk, and, more than once, alcohol. We were asked for lots of ice in cups. One man even punched himself in the eye for two cups of ice. We were asked angrily, multiple times, where in the world the Aussie potatoes were. We were warned about naked ladies behind our booth. (For your information, the horse barn is located behind our booth.) One man declared that he was the least drunk person in all of Minnesota.
One of the nights, while my back was turned, a group of rough kids came to the window. They started messing with my 17-year-old coworker. It was relatively harmless, but I could tell my young friend was starting to feel uncomfortable. I turned around and came to the window. You guys need something? I asked with a sassafras smile.
As soon as they saw the root beer mom, they backed off. (I’m like a middle-aged, caffeine-free super hero!) Of course, if they hadn’t backed off, there were a dozen cops within earshot.
Not all the post-8 o’clock people were bad. One customer gave me his pastrami and cream cheese pickle roll as a tip. (Don’t tell my mom, but I ate it.) Multiple customers happily shared that they come every year just to have some of the Sunderland’s Challenge root beer. Another guy spent quite a bit of time telling me where to get the honey ice cream year round. One night, a boy handed me a tip, and said that his big brother had taught him the importance of tipping. One woman was in town for business and wanted to know what was so great about the Minnesota State Fair. So what d’ya think? I asked her. This is so great! she said. I may have to come here for work next year too!
And then the fair would start to slow down. Around 10:30pm, the Grandstand performance would end. And the nightly fireworks would go off, celebrating the close to another great day at the fair. I had a perfect view of the show every night, right to the left of our booth.
My tired coworker and I would slowly clean up, take a few last minute orders for root beer or slushies and close up the stand for another night. Each night, as I rode the employee shuttle bus back to the lot and drove the half hour home, I would just think about all those people. And how I never expected that pouring root beers for a couple million people would be so much fun.
Respect them, listen to them, care about them, tell them a story, serve them good root beer, and they’ll come back again …next year at the Fair. ~ the Root Beer Mom
*Answers to the fair food trivia: a. deep-fried baklava on a stick, b. scotch egg on a stick, c. blooming onion, d. roasted corn, e. Bavarian pretzel, f. North Woods pork taco (from San Felipe’s Tacos), g. Fish Taco (also from San Felipe’s Tacos), h. deep-fried falafel on a stick, i. Reuben bites, j. candied apple (from the Galaxy of Drinks!)