Thursday, September 23, 2010

After Taste

Surprise, surprise, the Taste of Minnesota ownership group owes money to the city of St. Paul for use of Harriet Island, and has other unpaid bills as a result of their failed effort to convert the Taste of Minnesota to a music festival.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, read this.

I have no idea who owned the Minnesota food festival prior to Andy's group taking it over a couple of years ago, but if it survived for more than two decades, they must have been doing something right.

The unpaid bill for leasing St. Paul park space could result in the festival losing its claim to Harriet Island. That wouldn't be a bad thing, but I'm not sure where they'd move it, assuming they'd try to keep it going.

Here's an idea, why not the Minnesota State Fair grounds?

The fairgrounds have plenty of space for vendors, a decent amount of parking and a perfect facility for big time musical acts. The grounds are too large, actually, and not ideal for a food festival, but I think you could make it work without too much difficulty.

I have often wondered why the grandstand at the fairgrounds isn't used for more summer concerts. We've been told the Twin Cities lacks an amphitheater for summer concerts, so why not the grandstand? But I digress.

The future of Taste of Minnesota is in question. Some people think it's done after its failed 2010 experiment. I won't go that far, but if it does return next year, it will be dramatically different than the 2010 version, which left a bad taste in most everybody's mouth.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

State fair (ch. 1): From the outside, looking in (unedited)

I worked 79 hours at the Minnesota State Fair this past season, that's about nine hours less than usual.

Add to that a few hours I spent before or after work (mostly after) and I spent about 84 hours within the voluntary prison known as the state fair. Many business owners and some of their employees spend at least half of their day on the fairgrounds, each and every day for 12 days, so my 84 hours seems paltry, by comparison, but it's more than enough for me. I don't love the fair, but that fat payday at the end of the 12-day run keeps me coming back each year.

I'll examine life on the inside in the coming days, but for now I want to commemorate my life on the outside of the fair this year. Yes, there's a life outside the fair, even if the world, or at least Minnesota, centers upon our great Minnesota get together at the end of the summer.

There are hundreds of busses that run every single day to and from the fairgrounds, from points all around the Twin Cities. Some service parking lots near the fairgrounds -- you drive close to the fair, park and then get on a free bus for the final few miles to the entrance. Others service the fairgrounds from afar. You pay $5 for a round-trip ticket from an outlying suburb and ride to and from the fair. I order roundtrip tickets in advance of the fair, at the discounted rate of $4 per ride, and jump on the Eden Prairie limousines to and from the fair. I rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes from the time I get on an Eden Prairie limousine until the time it departs. It takes 35 minutes, on average, to make the trip from point A to B. Some days it takes barely 30 minutes to make the one-way trip. Other times it takes 40 minutes. Many factors influence the commute.

The busses pick up and drop off at three places outside the fairgrounds, as far as I can tell. My bus stop is on the south side of the fairgrounds. Many days I see dudes hawking bottled water along the perimeter of my bus stop. They have coolers on wagons and bottles in hand. I see some of the same dudes at 11:30 a.m. as I do at 9:15 p.m., and they all appear to be wearing ID badges that show they have peddlers licenses.

You frequently hear calls of "ice cold water" from these vendors. A few of them have catchy pitch phrases, such as "if you have a buck, you're in luck," or "if your throat is dry, I'm your guy." Bottom line, they're trying to sell you ice cold water for $1.

This year's fair started out rather hot and humid, so there was plenty of water to be sold outside the gates of the fair. By the latter half of the fair the weather turned windy and cool, and ice cold water wasn't such a hot commodity. Some mornings I didn't see anyone hawking ice cold water, and thanks to evening rain on Labor Day there was nobody hawking water outside the fairgrounds on my way home that night.

Besides the water guys, and an occasional water gal, there are sometimes people hawking light-up toys and glow-in-the-dark novelties at the end of the night when I head out the gate for my limousine.

But the real action is on the west side of the fairgrounds. The main gate for the fairgrounds is along Snelling Avenue, and plenty of busses drop people off across the street from it. On top of it, there is plenty of on-street parking in the neighborhood to the west, and plenty of people willing to sell a parking space on their lawn or in their driveway.

I made my way outside the Snelling entrance more than once during the fair, and during some of my breaks I would peek through the fence along the entrance to see what the crowd was like at the admission and ticket gates.

There was a guy on the corner across the street holding up a sign with his parking rate for a spot feet from the fairgrounds. I saw him selling his space as high as $30. I'm sure his rate depended upon the time of day and how busy the fair would be on that particular day.

The oddest thing about the Snelling Avenue area is that there are dozens of vendors outside of the fair. There are mobile food trailers hawking state fair staples such as mini-donuts and deep-fried cheese curds, as well as several merchandise vendors selling cheap sunglasses, gangsta wear and DVDs. These are all set up in the front yards of homes near the fair, one after another for a couple of blocks up Snelling Avenue, as well as a few along the parkway directly across the street from the main entrance. Somebody even rents a yard so that they can set up their window or aluminum siding display. Whatever it is that they sell, they attempt to tantalize you with a drawing to win free windows or siding. Nobody ever wins that stuff, I am sure, they just want to call you later when you don't win and offer to sell you new windows or siding at a great state fair discount.

Occasionally I have seen companies handing out free product along the sidewalks. One year I received a can of energy drink. This past summer there were people trying to promote and educate fairgoers about Islam, evidently. Good luck with that. If I'm on my way to the fair to stuff my face with corn dogs, french fries and deep-fried candy bars, chances are I'm not interested in your Islamic preaching.

I saw a few guys hawking water in their portable coolers outside the main entrance. These guys, however, were much more ambitious. The same 12-ounce bottles of water were being hawked at two for $1. Competition must be fierce along Snelling. The guys outside my bus lot must be in collusion.

I spent more time outside the Snelling gate this year than I did in previous years, to be sure. I had a brilliant idea.

Like my bus passes, the state fair sells admission tickets at a discount rate prior to the fair. (You can buy state fair coupon books and ride tickets at a discount as well.) Adult admission is $9 on the slow days, $11 the rest of the time. Seniors and kids can get in for less on several days, too. So the advance admission tickets don't save you any money on a special day, but they save you $2 on the days admission is $11.

Plenty of people buy an advance ticket, but many more don't bother, or don't know if they're going to the fair until the mood strikes on a sunny Saturday morning. When that happens you can wait several minutes to buy your ticket before proceeding to the admission gate.

A few years ago they were selling those advance admission tickets for $8 and charging $11 at the gate. I went outside the Snelling gate to unload a couple of extra tickets my boss had purchased and wasn't going to use. (All state fair employees are required to have a daily admission ticket. Most employers pay for them, as does my boss. That means my boss spends $90 most years to pay for my daily admission to the fair.)

I noticed a few people hawking tickets that day, and they had plenty of them to sell, evidently. I quickly realized why. They were scalping, so to speak. They bought $8 tickets, were selling them for $10 each and profiting $2 per ticket. Buyers were saving a buck on their ticket and didn't have to wait in line that day. It was brilliant.

The very next year the pre-sale price increased to $9. Other than avoiding lengthy ticket lines on a busy day, there's no incentive to buy tickets from a random dude for $11. And if you're selling the tickets, you don't want to have to make $9 change for every clown who buys a ticket with a $20 bill, so selling them for $10 is a practical matter.

Needless to say there doesn't seem to be many scalpers tying up hundreds of dollars in tickets just to make a buck off each ticket they sell on a busy Saturday.

And that's where I come in.

I raise $300 every year for the MS Society of Minnesota through my participation in the annual 150-mile bike ride. I hate asking people to give me money simply for participating, and since $300 isn't a huge burden, I try to find fundraising projects to make money. If I win concert tickets, DVDs or other items from a local contest and don't plan to keep the prize for myself, I sell it as a fundraising effort for my bike ride. I've done a variety of things to make money for the MS Society over the years. That's another blog for another time.

I sold an autographed poster signed by the cast of Glee last December, and made $55 for it. I was lucky to win it, and surprised I could sell it for that much without authenticity. The Glee cast had made a Mall of America appearance in the summer of 2009, and I won the poster from the mall's movie theater, but I couldn't prove those autographs were legitimate.

I also won concert tickets for a Bret Michaels concert a week before this year's bike ride. I was able to sell those tickets for $60. That turned out to be a fiasco, but I sold them.

I estimated that my fundraising was $60 short of the $300 minimum as the state fair approached. (Never mind that the bike ride was in June, I'm always finishing my fundraising at the end of the summer.) So I pulled $540 out of my savings and bought 60 state fair admission tickets. Upon selling them I'd recoup my $540 and the remaining $60 in fundraising I needed.

I waited until day 3 of the fair, the first Saturday, to hawk my tickets. I went to the parkway outside the Snelling gate where busses unloaded anxious fairgoers by the dozens. I arrived there about 40 minutes before I started work that day. It was a hot, humid day. There were plenty of people coming to the fair, but it didn't have that chaotic Saturday feel to it. I held up my tickets, announced I had $10 tickets, and sold a few. Plenty of people didn't need tickets, they were smart and pre-purchased theirs. But plenty of people still needed a ticket.

Yet my $10 tickets were moving rather slow.

I wasn't that far from the corner, and it was easy to see there were lines across the street, yet many people passed me by. Some people had kids, and my tickets weren't a bargain if you had to buy two or more kids tickets along with two adult tickets, but takers weren't as easy to come by as I expected.

There are police at the intersection, controlling the streetlights and directing traffic. There are other people working outside the gate as well. Employed by whom I do not know, but they're working. I can't even figure out what they do, other than watch people get on and off busses.

One of those dudes came up to me, after noticing that I was hawking tickets, and told me that the police don't take kindly to soliciting on the parkway. You can stand on the curbs and sidewalks, but not on the parkway, allegedly. He said I could stand next to them on the corner and they wouldn't care, but they didn't want solicitors on the grass where people were walking to and from the busses.

I thanked him for the tip, said I only had a handful to unload and continued about my business. I moved to the backside of a big pine tree, screening me from the view of the traffic cops, and watchful for anybody who didn't like what I was up to. I went to the curb to try and hawk my tickets across the street from people walking down the sidewalk, with no luck. For my first 30 minutes of effort I sold 19 of my 60 tickets. Discouraged, I went to work realizing my work was going to be far more challenging than I imagined.

I thought about trying my luck again on Sunday, but I was too slow getting going, and didn't have time to hawk before work. I told myself I needed to go outside of the gates during my work day once or twice while on break and sell four or six tickets, as if I was selling them for my boss. No big deal, a quick sale a couple of times a day and problems solved. I tried that once, but I balked once I got to the parkway. There weren't big crowds streaming to the gates, and I figured I'd have to really draw attention to myself in order to make a sale. I wasn't crazy about doing that.

So the following Saturday rolls around, it's day 10 of the fair and I have 41 tickets to unload, 35 to break even and six for profit. I considered standing with my water guys near my bus depot, but determined I couldn't pull the trigger. I've seen huge lines at the ticket windows across the street, and there were plenty of people lining up on that cool, sunny Saturday, but I couldn't pull the trigger. I didn't care if I got harassed by a cop for selling tickets, but I figured I was asking for more trouble if I was doing it anywhere that might be considered state fair property. If that wasn't an issue, I could have stood at the back of a group of ticket booths nearby and sold tickets in record time. The lines at that set of booths were always ridiculous on busy days. But to do so, I would have had to stand on fair property, and I didn't want to try that.

I opted to stake out a spot under a Snelling Avenue bridge on Como Avenue. People trickled to the fair from that area, but not by the dozens. Within a minute or two I realized that spot would never produce meaningful ticket sales.

So faced with $350 in investment, I realized I had to find a spot near the Snelling entrance where I could avoid detection and go to work. I walked up there, crossed the street, scoped out the scene and set myself up behind that same pine tree, hoping to avoid detection. I made it look like I had five tickets, even though I was holding two sheets of five, and held up my tickets. With little immediate interest in the tickets I was holding, I pulled out the line I knew I needed to use in order to move product. "$10 tickets, no waiting."

The lines were healthy at the Snelling ticket booths on this Saturday, and even though people didn't immediately realize it, many of them knew $10 was a deal and that there was probably a wait for admission tickets across the street. I found it much easier to move tickets, thankfully.

A couple of people asked why I was selling tickets for only $10. I lied and said my boss always buys extra advance tickets each year, and that I unload what we don't need during the final weekend. I said more than once that when I finished selling the tickets in my hand, I was done and could go to work for nine hours.

A couple of times during my Saturday sales people asked me if the tickets were fake. These tickets were individually numbered, with extensive lettering on both sides and a colorful watermark. I told people that if I could fake tickets like these, I'd spend my time selling something worth more than $10.

I wasn't the only one selling tickets outside the Snelling gate, I noticed. A peddler on a corner a block away from Snelling was selling admission tickets for $11, the same price as at the ticket booth. His tickets, however, included free water. I suspect he was a licensed peddler, as he wasn't nearly as discreet as I was about hawking tickets. I'm not sure how well a free 12-ounce water enticed people to pay him $11 rather than pay the same amount at the gate, but you know he paid less than a quarter for one bottle of water, so his profit per ticket sale was $1.75. His tickets were probably an easier sell on the really hot days -- the first weekend of the fair.

A couple came up to me during the first Saturday I was selling tickets and tried to pay me $10 total. They gave me $10 for two tickets and I clarified it was $10 each. They claimed I said $5. At no point did I mention $5 in connection with my tickets. They opted to wait in line and pay $11 for their tickets. Brilliant.

One guy noticed I was hawking tickets and walked by me on that first Saturday. A minute later he found his way back to me, having seen how long the line was for tickets across the street.

In response to the $10 asking price question, I did tell one person on the first Saturday I was selling the tickets to raise money for my MS Society bike ride. The woman was impressed, shook my hand and thanked me for my effort.

With the remaining 41 tickets sold in less time than the first 19 sold, I was done with my scheme. I made $59 for my effort and had 45 minutes to spare. Why didn't I make $60? A woman came back to me when she realized on the second Saturday that lines were long, but didn't have much cash on her. (There are cash machines all over the fairgrounds.) She had a $10 bill and a bunch of singles. She counted out her singles and realized there were only nine. She realized she could only buy one from me, but I took the $19, gave her two tickets and said "Merry Christmas."

As it turns out, a little bonus fundraising in the days prior to the fair left me $40 short of the $300 goal. So I had $19 to spare. I could have donated it to the MS Society, but decided that since I wasn't hawking the tickets specifically as a charity sale, I was justified in pocketing $19 for my state fair spending. I don't spend a lot of money at the fair, but I spent more than I have during the past three years, so I could use the extra $19. Besides, I pay the annual registration fee for the bike ride, a separate fee from the fundraising, out of my own pocket every year. Let's just say that the $19 I didn't donate to the MS Society is going back to the organization in the form of my 2011 registration fee.

And if that $19 wasn't enough to make my day, I found $16 on the ground a half-hour later. Details on that will have to wait until I go inside the fair.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ice cold water $1 (unedited state fair prologue)

Thanks to a family get together, I have just one last day of work at the Great Minnesota Get Together.

I'm about to finish my fourth year hawking jewelry at the Minnesota State Fair, and I still have little appreciation for the annual end-of-summer ritual.

It makes little sense to me. Thousands of people, some days more than 200,000, pay about $10 per person to enter into a mafia-like environment where they overpay for the most unhealthy food on the planet, among other wastes of time.

I sell jewelry each year, jewelry you can't find in abundant supply locally throughout the year. People covet such jewelry, so the owners of my booth make money. It's a tough business, and they're not getting rich beyond their wildest dreams, but they make a buck or two, and people who purchase from us generally walk away pleased with their transaction.

But now more than ever there's nothing at the state fair that you can't buy any day of the year. Yet some people are convinced they need to buy it at the state fair, after overpaying for a low-alcohol, high-price version of beer. (Don't get me started about Minnesota's 3.2-percent alcohol laws.)

People are herded like cattle into the state fairgrounds, charged more than the free market rate for food and beverages because they've voluntarily agreed to imprison themselves, spend hours looking at things they wouldn't pay a dime for if they had the opportunity to do so outside the fairgrounds and constantly fall all over each other to do so.

And people think America is a great country. Come to the Minnesota State Fair and you'll see we're a bunch of idiots.

Further examination of this phenomena is coming in excruciating detail in the weeks ahead.