Jimmy Steichen doesn’t want new front doors at the small convenience store and deli he runs at the Minnesota State Fair. Nor a fresh paint job. He doesn’t want a shiny stainless steel sandwich prep counter, either. When one was offered to him, for free, he said no.
“We’ve got our porcelain deli counter out there that’s part of the history of the store,” he said. “Since my grandpa died, I haven’t really changed anything. Put some new window shades up, and that’s about it.”
Between the wood paneling and vintage cigarette ads, walking into Steichen’s Market feels like being thrust back in time. And this is just how Steichen intends it. Steichen’s grandfather started the market at the State Fair in 1926, and this season marks Steichen’s 52nd at the shop. While new foods and attractions debut at the fair every year, Steichen’s Market remains as it always has: Tucked away between Clough Street and Carnes Avenue; the only place at the State Fair where you can grab antacids, paper towels, candy, and a freshly sliced cold cut sandwich in one stop.
“Most of the people that I grew up with, that owned the stands, are all dead and gone,” Steichen said. “That was hard for me, because I was watching all these guys that were there for me when my grandpa died and who helped me — and then all of the sudden he died. And then he died. And then that guy died, and that guy died. It was horrible. But everybody seems to have a little bit of their history in me now.”
The way Steichen maintains his shop is an homage not just to his grandfather, but also to a spirit of camaraderie at the State Fair that might now only exist in the memories of folks who’ve been around as long as he has.
Family and history
Jimmy Steichen was 8 when he pulled his first gizzard out of a State Fair chicken.
Back then, when Steichen’s grandfather ran the place, the country’s food system was less industrialized and less corporatized. Family-owned corner grocers hadn’t yet been uprooted by big-box stores, he said. And instead of ordering from national food distributors like Sysco and U.S. Foods, State Fair vendors bought most of their wholesale ingredients from a little shop in the alleyway behind Carnes Street.
“Back in the early days, if you ate a hot dog or a hamburger at the fair, 99% sure it came out of right here,” Steichen said. Chicken, too. Steichen’s first job at the Fair was pulling the innards out of the birds and handing them off to the butchers, who’d break them down and package them up exactly how the vendor down the street wanted. Burgers were ground fresh; orders were delivered in five minutes.
Everyone who worked at the Fair back then knew one another, Steichen felt, and he doesn’t recall as much competitiveness among vendors as he notices now. And, too, the Fair was smaller and scrappier. Even after his grandfather died in 1975, the Fair that Steichen knew was one of wooden concession booths and screw-in lightbulbs to light them up at dusk. The floor of Steichen’s Market’s butchers’ quarters was covered in sawdust. Trainloads of seasonal carnival workers and sideshow performers still rolled through the Fair’s Midway every summer.
The carnival workers couldn’t leave their posts during the day, Steichen said, but at 11:53 p.m., they’d make their way toward the deli sandwich hotspot of the Fair. Two deep, the line would snake around the wooden product racks and out the door. Steichen kept the sandwich line open until 1:30 a.m. to feed everyone.
“I had the lizard boy and the tattooed lady and all these people coming in,” he said. “We had a ball at night in here; I’ll tell ya’. We had fun. I could tell a lot of stories about those guys, man. Not ones you could print!”
He pointed at a photo on the wall of the Royal American Shows trains that would bring his carnival friends into town for the Fair. Eventually, the company stopped stopping here.
In another framed photo Steichen dug up from his family archives, his grandfather holds a box of house-made burger patties, ready to be carted across the Fair. In time, all but Steichen’s Market’s most loyal customers jumped ship to larger food distributors that could offer cheaper prices, and the family shut down the wholesale business.
And further down on the wall hang the original wooden signs that hung outside his grandfather’s corner stores in the old Rondo neighborhood, before it was destroyed to make room for I-94.
“Those I found up in the attic, too. I wanted to make sure to get those preserved,” he said.
“I miss my grandpa.”
He sighed, and silence hung in the air.
Jimmy Steichen was 8 when he pulled his first gizzard out of a State Fair chicken, but his grandfather worked him just as hard as any other employee.
When he was maybe 10 or 11, Steichen said, his grandfather took him back to the butchers’ quarters and chewed him out in front of all the other staff.
“I took off and went in the bathroom and I sat there, and I cried, and I cried,” he said. “I came back out thinking he was going to tell me sorry for yelling at me. I came back, and he stood there — my eyes were all red — and he goes, ‘You finished?’ I can still see him. I looked up and him, and he goes, ‘Now get your ass back to work!’”
Today, Steichen considers himself lucky that his grandfather didn’t treat him any differently or make him work any less hard. At one time, nearly the entire Fair was powered by Steichen’s Market. Today, in return, Steichen is empowered by the Fair.
“My dad and my grandpa are two of my biggest heroes I’ve ever had in my life,” he said, “and when I come out here, I remember things like that. I can feel my grandpa out here.”