'Fair necessities': Wisconsin State Fair offers food favorites in drive-thru program

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A car waits to pick up pizza at Rick's Pizza.

WEST ALLIS – The Wisconsin State Fair may not be happening this year, but you can still get your favorite sweets and treats by driving right up to the vendors along the Milwaukee Mile this year.

The state fairgrounds are open for business for a full four weekends July 23 to August 16 for people to come buy fair food. The operation takes cars around a winding path across the fairgrounds, from the Milwaukee Mile to 84th Street, with several areas for drivers to stop right at their favorite vendor's setup.

The vendors change every week – the first weekend's 11 vendors included Rick's Pizza, Gertrude's Pretzels, Waffle Chix and The Big Cheese. While you're not allowed to get out of your vehicle, you can get anything served to you through your car window and take it home with you. There's also no admission fee, and a menu is offered online each week.

The state fair normally takes an entire year to plan, but since the official fair cancellation May 28, public relations manager Tess Kerksen said fair staff had to crunch these past two months to get the drive-thru event ready to go for the public.

"Come that Monday (after the cancellation on Thursday), it was time to plan how to sweeten the sting of canceling the state fair," Kerksen said.

The Big Cheese is selling their famous cheese curds at the state fair drive-thru this year.

Kerksen said she's seen a decent amount of people wearing masks at the drive-thru event. While nearby Milwaukee mandates face coverings at all times inside buildings and outside when within six feet of others, West Allis does not have a mandate. Kerksen also noted she has seen many Illinois drivers coming through for fair favorites.

Rick Ukmar, who owns the pickle pizza joint Rick's Pizza, said the turnout has already been successful for the vendors. He also said he's received words of support from customers pulling through, and overall it's been a good environment to work in.

"The whole fair season's been cancelled out this year, so having this is just great," Ukmar said. "(It) keeps our employees working, so this is a real good thing they're doing here."

Keri Retallick, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Pork Association, was helping run the WPA's Pork Schoppe this past weekend. She said the Pork Schoppe creates a major fundraising opportunity for the WPA at the state fair, and when she heard the fair was cancelled, she was "devastated." She said she's been to the fair every year since she was a little girl.

"It feels like we're at the fair, we just don't have all the fanfare that we usually do," Retallick said. "We're just happy to be here. We're so thankful to Wisconsin State Fair for allowing us this opportunity here."

A Rick's Pizza employee hands slices of pizza to a customer at the Wisconsin State Fair drive-thru.

Chief programs officer Shari Black said the state fair wanted fairgoers to get their yearly fix of fair food and wear, so the staff took inspiration from other fairs around the country who are also trying to hold fairs in a pandemic setting. She said fairs in East Texas, California and Elkhart, Indiana were some of the best places to model Wisconsin's own fair after. They also shared ideas with the Minnesota and Iowa state fairs, which are still in the planning stages.

"It was a huge team effort," Black said. "We did a lot of brainstorming, a lot of meetings. Yes, logistically it was a very big challenge, but it was something we were all up for."

Black said that not only are regular fair food vendors getting the chance to sell their products, but vendors usually housed inside the Wisconsin Products Pavilion building every year are also selling their items in a goodies box online for $68. Wisconsin State Fair clothing is also being sold online, from T-shirts to lapel pins and even face masks.