by Jim Boyle
Will your summer be complete without a bucket of piping hot cheese curds to devour with a friend?
If not, you might want to find yourself at the parking lot of Coborn’s in Elk River this weekend.
A pair of Delano food truck operators will likely be back in Elk River after having the chance this past weekend to test people’s appetite for cheese curds, corn dogs and footlong hot dogs with option of adding ketchup, mustard and/or grilled onions. It was clear people were hungry — literally and figuratively — for fair food.
The duo will be back in their hometown of Delano for the Fourth of July weekend before possibly finding themselves back at another Coborn’s grocery store somewhere in Central Minnesota.
If you have a hankering for some other fair food that’s on your bucket list every year at the Minnesota State Fair, check out Coborn’s grocery stores in Albertville and Ramsey.
If you want to challenge yourself to see how many fair foods you can eat in 2020 — a year the state fair has been canceled — check out the Fair Food Finder, a public Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/ 245420266734458 to help you locate your “must-have” fair food.
Lori Lexvold and her son Ian Lexvold manage the 127,000-member-strong Fair Food Finder group on Facebook. Lori, a lifelong attendee of the state fair originally from Roseville, launched the group after the news that this year’s Minnesota State Fair was not to be.
The site includes a map that points to more than three dozen parking lots of breweries, hardware stores and VFWs that are hosting food stands, trailers and tents making fair-style food. (Those included aren’t necessarily licensed to work the Minnesota State Fair).
Among the locations on the list as of June 22 were Buffalo, Big Lake, Maple Grove, Anoka and Coon Rapids as well as many other points across the metro. Many vendors are setting up in parking lots, on roadsides, and even at dormant fairgrounds across the state.
Ian shared on June 20 that thanks to Patrick Huber, they are well on their way to developing an app and have posted a survey to help with its development.
Coborn’s connected to state fair food vendors through Tino Lettieri
Doug Bobick scored the Coborn’s parking lot in Elk River after he got a call from Tino Lettieri, the director of deli fresh for the St. Cloud-based grocer.
The ex-soccer goalie for the Minnesota Kicks floated the idea to his colleagues at Coborn’s to see what they thought of offering up their parking lots to sidelined state fair food vendors, and they encouraged him to run with it.
Lettieri, the son of an Italian master baker, has a long history with the Minnesota State Fair, including a long run at selling pizza-on-a-stick before he sold the patented recipe to a California company.
Lettieri, who was born in Italy and raised in Canada, is often remembered for his keeping a stuffed parrot in the back of his net during games. He played with the Minnesota Kicks from 1977-81 and for the Minnesota Strikers in 1984 after two years in Vancouver where he was named NASL North American Player of the Year in 1983. He had the league’s best Goals Against Average in 1982 and 1983.
He reinvented himself after his pro career. He has launched several ventures producing various Italian foods and was once the principal owner of Tino’s Artesian Kitchen in Plymouth.
He has continued to be a regular at the Minnesota State Fair, even after selling off pizza-on-a-stick more than two decades ago and landing a position as director of deli fresh in charge of R&D in April of 2019 with Coborn’s.
He himself does not own a food truck, but he said he’s happy to give state fair food vendors access to Coborn’s parking lots. He said they have to provide their own permits, but its proving to be a win-win for Coborn’s and the food truck operators.
“It increases the traffic for us (at Coborn’s),” Lettieri said. “And it gives these guys a chance to make up some of their lost sales. Everyone’s pretty happy with (the arrangement).”
Lettieri has worked closely with Bob Sabo, the director of bakery; Josh Croson, the director of deli; and Mike Richter, the vice president of fresh merchandising to roll out the effort across the company. Elk River Coborn’s store director Logan Utech welcomed the partnership.
“Who doesn’t want fair food in your parking lot,” Utech said. “I’m glad the community turned out in support. It was so fun.”
Lettieri has developed a schedule for Coborn’s locations across Central Minnnesota that extends into July, and he has hope the endeavor will reach well into August.
Fair food customers in Elk River over this past weekend were a mix of grocery store shoppers and motorists headed up north or back from the cabin. Some families pulled out lawn chairs and sat on the grassy areas along Evans Avenue. Others retreated to their automobiles to enjoy their food.
Candi Erickson and Robert Wilson of Elk River were among the locals who stopped over for some fair food. Erickson grew up helping family members who had food booths at the state fair.
“I’m so glad they are doing this,” she said.
Customers on their way back from up north were easy to spot, as they could be seen stretching tight muscles from the long trip. Seeing the food trailers was a good reason to stop, stretch and grab a bite to eat
“This has gone really well,” said Doug Westrum, who has logged 40 years in the business and has been a regular at the Anoka County Fair since the mid- to late-1970s. “People are really supporting us. They love their fair food, and they’re supporting in this new way.”
Westrum is most known at the Minnesota State Fair for his Beef and Wild Rice Burger topped with provolone cheese and the choice of chipotle mayo and grilled onions. The buns are buttered and toasted. That operation is a bit more labor-intensive than the cheese curds food trailer he set up in Elk River.
If not for a labor shortage, Westrum could have set up four or five trailers. He said with COVID-19 he limited the number of his visa requests. His crew in Elk River included family members and a Hungarian immigrant couple who won a lottery to be granted access to the United States.
Bobick brings two Bigdog Corndog food truck trailers to the Mnnesota State Fair each year. Under normal circumstances, he would have had been selling corn dogs and dogs at the Land of the Loon Festival in Virginia this past weekend.
Locals who planned to get their fair food fix at Elk RiverFest on Saturday, July 4 or at the Sherburne County Fairgrounds later that month have several other avenues to explore thanks to Tino Lettieri, Coborn’s and dedicated volunteers Lori Lexvold and her son Ian who manage the fair food finder Facebook page.