WI State Fair welcomes back Products Pavilion vendors with open arms – and mouths

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A volunteer assembles grilled cheese sandwiches on the griddle.

Wisconsin producers, from honey to cranberries and ice cream, have finally hit the Wisconsin Products Pavilion at the state fair this year, and sales are steady.

Despite COVID-19 still taking its toll on the US, the 2021 Wisconsin State Fair opened its doors for the first time in two years (not counting a drive-thru event in 2020) to fairgoers hungry with anticipation. The Products Pavilion is the center of much of the fair's most unique Wisconsin-based products to take home or eat on the fly.

Many vendors reported attendance and sales going above their expectations, with some hitting higher than the 2019 Fair's opening day, which was one of the most-attended state fairs in Wisconsin history. However, downpours and lightning have kept some people from going to the fairgrounds, so it's not all been sunny days.

The Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association has been the burger and ribeye steak sandwich hotspot for decades. This year, steak trailer manager Vickie Dunnum said the WCA decided to raise the price of the ribeye sandwich from $9 to $10 due to prices rising as much as $6 a pound in the beef market. The booth has also struggled with the labor shortage this year; Vickie said she'll take whoever she can get on board.

"I'm really looking forward to just spreading the information about how we run the stand. What we would really like is to get groups of people that really believe in the industry coming together because we have group labor," Dunnum said. "The hardest thing right now is to try to find enough help to run this stand."

Even though the grill is located outside in the elements, away from the inside customer-facing booth, Dunnum and her crew have pressed on through the wind and rain to continue selling some of the fair's most affordable meals. She said it means a lot to her to be able to provide decently priced meals for families at the fair.

"Because we have the inside (booth), when it rains, what do people do? They come inside. So for us, it's like you got to keep grilling," Dunnum said. "I've had a lot of people come up to us and just thank us for our pricing and that you get a good meal."

2021 Honey Queen Anna Evenson hung out at the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association booth on Tuesday, Aug. 10.

Ann Schulz, board coordinator for the Wisconsin State Fair Dairy Promotion Board, said she's happy with the sales at the fair's grilled cheese and chocolate milkshakes booths so far. The shakes are a new addition this year, she said, with each shake selling at $4. But the grilled cheese has been here a lot longer – 14 years.

"Considering everything that we're going through, it's still a good year. We also have to remember that 2019 was a phenomenal year for us," Schulz said. "So to come back after that year to have a year off and come back and expect 2019 (sales), it's just not realistic."

Despite some poor weather, small bursts of rain helped push business inside the pavilion, though full days of rain generally just see less fairgoers. Schulz also said that for her department, it hasn't been difficult to source supplies, but she explained that some other dairy vendors may have had other difficulties.

Over at the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association booth, which sells the much-loved apple cider donuts and other treats, things are a little on the rough side this year. Manager Brad Maenner said that due to the fair cutting back its morning hours this year, WAGA has seen some sales decreases because a lot of their food is breakfast-oriented. Plus, they've had to remove some items because they're harder to keep sanitized.

"We have a lot of breakfast type items, so because of that, we used to have busy mornings and stay constant throughout the day. Well, now we've lost our mornings," Maenner said. "We tried to kept all the stuff that we'd hand make a lot back here. We still make the fresh donuts. But a lot of the other stuff ... we are just holding off for this year."

The good news is that most apple growers have been having a good year so far with weather; Maenner said only an early spring frost held some growers back. He added that many are looking forward to a better season this year with many more people going outside for apple picking and other activities.

For the Wisconsin Cherry Growers, business has been booming. Employee Sandy Sikich said opening day Aug. 5 was "crazy busy," and she also said she noticed customers being a lot more patient and polite than in the 25 years she's worked the booth in the Products Pavilion.

"We had a line from the main counter all the way to the far end. They were just buying a juice and they waited in line," Sikich said. "They saw how busy we were because of lack of employees."

One of the WCG's newest creations for the state fair crowd was its cherry cupcake. Employee Barbara Moulton said that while it's made in a bakery in Greendale, near Milwaukee, the cherries are sourced right from Door County. And as always, the booth's cherry slushies and juices continue to be its best-sellers to beat the heat.

"We can't keep enough of them. We've been making 800 of them every day," Moulton said. "Usually our cherry pie is real big seller, but this year people don't want a slice of pie."

The Wisconsin Maple Syrup Producers Association booth is also a popular stop every year with maple-flavored cotton candy and root beer and, of course, locally sourced maple syrup. Executive director Theresa Baroun said she believes the pandemic has caused a surge in buying local products because people want to know where their food really comes from. While equipment and supplies shortages have caused challenges in the industry, maple syrup is still sought-after.

"With the maple syrup, they want to buy something that's locally grown here in Wisconsin. They want to support their local maple producer," Baroun said. "So I think it's helped (business) in that aspect, even across the state and with people's sugarbushes and their stores. It seems sales have gone up tremendously with the pandemic."