For true Minnesota State Fair enthusiasts, planning a day at the massive exposition isn’t about where to go first; it’s about what to eat first. Nobody knows that better than Craig Gass of Plymouth who was practically born in his parents’ carnival cookhouse and has been serving his own homemade recipes at The Great Minnesota Get-Together for 21 years.
“It’s a food frenzy fair unlike anywhere on the globe,” says Gass, a fulltime realtor with a seasonal side gig as owner of Gass Station Grill. He’s been hauling it to fairs since buying his first “footlong” trailer, as he calls it, months after leaving the Army in 1970.
Enter the fair gates and follow your nose to the Gass Station Grill outside the food building at the corner of Carnes and Cooper. There, you’ll find Gass or his wife, Jean, and loyal employees—mostly Plymouth friends—hustling behind the counter of their 16 ft. by 14 ft. piece of prime real estate.
Making its debut last year, Gass’ Minnesota Corn Dog recipe was an instant crowd pleaser—ground sausage made with blueberries, apples, wild rice, maple syrup and cayenne dipped in a family batter recipe (that dates back to the 1940s) then deep-fried on a stick.
“Most of our innovation comes from brainstorming with our family, then working with local vendors to see if it can happen,” Craig says. Also on the menu is the burger dog, belly bustin’ burger, footlong hotdog, mini corndog bites (for which a coupon can be found in the Blue Ribbon Bargain Book), and old fashioned sodas.
Married for 45 years, parents to three grown daughters and grandparents to six, Craig and Jean Gass agree the biggest challenge for them these days is the stamina required, so they divide and conquer. Jean arrives at 6 a.m. to start the grills. Craig stays to close at 10:30 p.m. and does the books.
“I knew what I was getting into when I married him,” says Jean. “It’s all worth it for the satisfaction of being around wonderful people and outside working in the fresh air.”
Craig can’t imagine his summers any other way. “There’s an old expression that says if you get the sawdust in your toes, you’ll never wash it out,” he says. From the time he was 2 weeks old, he was traveling to carnivals “throughout the land” with his parents and siblings, spending summers scooping mashed potatoes behind the counter of their family cookhouse.
“Back then there were no frozen hamburgers or French fries. Everything was made fresh,” Craig says. Not only that, but the plates and cups were porcelain, the silverware was real, and instead of a mechanical dishwasher, they had a guy standing by a tub with some soap.
Becoming a concessionaire at the fair is no easy feat, with hundreds of proposals rejected or put on a waiting list annually, and only a few new spots available each season. “We are very proud to be included with such high quality vendors,” says Craig, who gained entrance in 1997 and has no plans to give up his coveted spot anytime soon. “This is a major big deal,” he says.
“My husband says nobody ever retires from the food business,” Jean says. “It we did stop [working at the fair], we’d wish we were still there.”
The Gass Station Grill sets up shop at about 15 other events throughout the season, during which it’s primarily managed by one of their long-time employees. Presently, Craig and Jean only work at it during the State Fair and the Brainerd International Raceway National Drag Racing Series, also in August.
Favorite fair food items other than the ones you serve?
I’ll have to go with our good friends at Dino’s Gyros, the Corn Roast, Tom Thumb Donuts, and Peter’s Wieners just to name a few.
Favorite places to take a break?
Taking a break isn’t usually in the cards for me or Jean, but across from our booth is the Leinenkugel stage. It’s in the shade, and it’s relaxing to hear great free music that is offered to the public on any given day.
It’s hard to pinpoint any one place. The barns are unbelievable. You can learn and see stuff you can’t even imagine. I’d also recommend the Education Building, the DNR building, the 4-H building, and the amateur talent contest across from the 4-H building. Also at the new West End is the History and Heritage Center that is full of fair memorabilia including past days of concessions and entertainment.
Dates & Hours: Aug. 24-Sept. 4
Fairgrounds open 6 a.m. to midnight (10 p.m. on Labor Day).
Tickets: Adults (13-64): $14, Seniors (65+): $12, Kids (5-12): $12, Children (Under 5): Free
Discount tickets can be purchased by phone at (800) 514-3849 or at participating Cub stores while supplies last.
State Fair App: Don’t forget to download the Minnesota State Fair App, which includes vendor
locations, menus, bargains, and more.