culture

The Hustle Behind the Iowa State Fair—Where You Can Find Anything on a Stick

“I get up at 6 a.m., come here, fire up the grill.”

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people descend upon Des Moines, Iowa, to attend the Iowa State Fair. These folks know that the State Fair has become one of the premier food destinations in America and they come ready to eat at the nearly 200 food stands.

 

Vegetables, meat, dessert and anything in between can be found deep-fried, wrapped in bacon or on a stick at every turn. The Fairgrounds are open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day and it takes thousands of employees to keep everyone happy and fed. We talked to some of the vendors who sweat it out in the heat to bring the fairgoers their delectable treats.

Ruth McCoy // The Veggie-Table

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What do you sell here?

 

McCoy: We sell all vegetarian food and a couple of vegan items. Mushrooms, zucchini, cauliflower, onion rings, mushrooms, string beans…[and] some specialty items such as fried avocado slices, portobello mushroom slices, jalapeno poppers, white cheddar cheese balls and mozzarella sticks. 

 

How many years have you been a vendor at the Iowa State Fair?

 

McCoy: We’ve been a vendor here for 38 years. I’ve been here for all 38. It was actually my husband’s mother who started it, she was retiring and wanted to start something at the fair. She always said, “I’d like to be a carnie but this is something we could do.”

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A veggie corn dog, served at The Veggie-Table / Jason Bergman for ONE37pm

What’s been the timeline of your day thus far?

 

McCoy: This is all family working here. We leave our houses at 7 a.m., you have to be here by 9 a.m. Our [produce] order comes in and we change our batter every day, we make batter every day. We are hand-dipping them and want to have the freshest corn dogs. We start getting everything ready, cleaning, stock freezers and ready to start selling by 9 a.m. People are ready by 8:30 a.m. for corn dogs. We have to wait for our oil to heat us, so we try to be ready by 8:30 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. at the latest.

 

How late are you here till usually?

 

McCoy: I’m only here until 4:30 p.m., when my son comes in and takes it over. He’s here till midnight, but on weekends, by the time they get home and count the money, it’s 3 a.m. by the time they go to bed. It’s long nights. Most everyone here has another job. They either take a vacation or work around schedules to be here.

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Fried avocado, served at The Veggie Table / Jason Bergman for ONE37pm

What’s the most popular item you sell?

 

McCoy: A few years ago I would have said the pickle. We would have freezers full of pickles. Now the avocado has taken over; we are selling so many. People just love them. They say, “This is just my favorite.” 

 

Describe your food in 3 words.

 

McCoy: Unique, crispy, because I love crispy. Delicious.

 

Who is the most famous person or most interesting person you’ve sold something to at your stand?

 

McCoy: My son said Cory Booker was the most genuine person that we’ve had. We had Rick Perry here, but I feel bad for Rick. He didn’t know it was a vegetarian corn dog. He got a lot of flack for stopping at a veggie stand. Lots of pictures of him biting into the corn dog circulated a lot—we were on a lot of the late-night shows. Our corn dog was pretty famous. Mitt Romney, he was another big one. Cory Booker and Tulsi Gabbard brought some attention to us. We have our mayor, a lot of people that are local. Even some of the fair people who work here say that we are their favorite.

Carla Wood // Gizmos

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How many years have you been a vendor at the Iowa State Fair?

 

Wood: 73 years this year. My dad started this shop in 1946, right after World War II.

 

What’s been the timeline of your day thus far?

 

Wood: I get up about ten to 6 a.m. I shower, leave by 7:15 a.m. I usually have three or four people with me and we start pounding the meat, cooking, setting up, getting the tables and everything ready. I’m here until close, so that’s depending on the night, anywhere from 11:30 to midnight.

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The Gizmo Sandwich / Jason Bergman for ONE37pm

What is the main product you sell here?

 

Wood: Our Italian beef burger is called a “Gizmo Sandwich.” It is a family-owned operation that makes our Italian sausage which is Graziano’s Italian sausage. We mix that with ground beef. I put on my special sauce and seasonings, smother it with melted mozzarella cheese and toast it on a delicious Italian roll.

 

What’s the most popular item?

 

Wood: Here it’s the Gizmo. In Minneapolis, they like their hot dogs.

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Describe your food in 3 words.

 

Wood: I’ll do a quote from Andrew Zimmern: “Nirvana in a bun.”

 

Who is the most famous person or most interesting person you’ve sold something to at your stand?

 

Wood: Well Andrew Zimmern. I’ve sold to the Nelson Brothers. Johnny Bananas from MTV. University of Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery.

Amy VanMaanen // Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association

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The strawberry shortcake / Jason Bergman for ONE37pm

How many years have you been a vendor at the Iowa State Fair?

 

VanMaanen: Center Grove Orchard is here working the booth for the Iowa Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. I’m not sure how long they’ve been a vendor here, but I do hear from people that they love the strawberry shortcake and they get it every year.

 

Does everything have apples in it?

 

VanMaanen: Not everything. We have products with strawberries, raspberries and apples.

 

What’s been the timeline of your day thus far?

 

VanMaanen: We arrive around 8 o’clock and get things set up. We are here until we close at 9 p.m. and leave shortly after that if all goes well.

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What’s the most popular item you have here?

 

VanMaanen: The strawberry shortcake. Our new product is the apple cider shakeup and that has two scoops of ice cream, frozen apple cider, whip cream, sprinkles, caramel, a caramel apple and a rim around the mug with caramel and graham cracker crumbs.

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The apple cider shakeup / Jason Bergman for ONE37pm

How many of those do you sell on a daily basis?

 

VanMaanen: I know on Saturday we sold over one hundred of them. 

 

You’re creating every major mess in Des Moines this weekend.

 

VanMaanen: We are! 

Kelsey Sutter // Marketing and Program Director with Iowa Pork Association

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How many years have you been a vendor at the Iowa State Fair?

 

Sutter: We’ve been present at the fair since 1981. Next year will be our 40-year anniversary of the pork tent. 

 

What’s been the timeline of your day thus far?

 

Sutter: We roll in around 8 a.m. and start getting our pork chops and pork belly on a stick cooked. We open at 10 a.m. and we stay open until 10 p.m. Definitely our busiest time of the day is lunch; we have a great lunch crowd. And then someone, typically myself, is here until about 11 p.m.

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Pork on the grill / Jason Bergman

How many staff do you have working?

 

Sutter: It takes about 1,000 volunteers to run the pork tent over 11 days. We average about 80 to 100 people a day and there are 11 days of the fair. Our daily volunteers who come are either members of a county pork producer association or they work for a big pork producing company in the state of Iowa. It’s people within the industry volunteering.

 

What’s the most popular item you have here?

 

Sutter: Pork chop on a stick. By a landslide.

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How many do you make in a day? What’s your highest sales number?

 

Sutter: In the course of the 11-day fair, we will cook and serve about 60,000 pork chops on a stick in 11 days. On a weekend, that’s about 6,000 a day. 

 

Who is the most famous person or most interesting person you’ve sold something to at your stand?

 

Sutter: So far? That is a really tough question. We’ve had a lot of the presidential candidates come through already. From years past we’ve had every sitting president visit the pork tent either during their campaign or during their presidency. The most exciting one I’ve experienced would have been in 2013 when President [Barack] Obama came through and had a pork chop on a stick and a beer from the beer tent.

 

Are they any funny or weird things that you experience or hear from people running a stand that only sells pork?

 

Sutter: We get lots of wild questions. Some of the funny things we’ve seen is people will get to the register and say, “Do you have any vegetarian options?” We’ll say, “We’re pig farmers, that’s what we do. So...no.”

Tony Baker // The Big Grill

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How many years have you been a vendor at the Iowa State Fair?

 

Baker: I've been a vendor here for 5 years. The grill here is about 20 feet and we provide food for three other stalls. I work the fair but the owner travels 10 months out of the year to other state fairs.

 

What’s been the timeline of your day thus far?

 

Baker: I get up at 6 a.m., come here, fire up the grill. Set out the condiments, get everything ready and then we go.

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How many pork legs did you make today and how many do you anticipate selling today?

 

Baker: On a busy day like Saturday, we’ll do 3,000 legs. 

 

That’s a lot of pigs!

 

Baker: Yeah. Today so far we’ve done 400, but it’s early. 

 

Describe your food in 3 words.

 

Baker: Delicious.

 

You just need one word?

 

Baker: That’s it.

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