Photograph by Caitlin Abrams
Brad Ribar, roast master.
Brad Ribar, roast master.
Imagine an amazing land far past, a land very much like ours but also so unlike it as to be unrecognizable: a land with no roast corn at the Minnesota State Fair. You can’t conjure it, right? The charred ochre-yellow ears, the brittle green husks, and the fire-and-butter smell are such core parts of the fair today. And yet the Minnesota State Fair Corn Roast has an inventor. His name is Brad Ribar, a lean, green-eyed, laconic, and no-nonsense man who is a living link to a world few of us today can imagine, one where the State Fair was not just pre-corn roast, but pre-food frenzy.
Here’s what it was like, says Ribar, now 60: People would drive right into the fairgrounds, and park on the streets. They’d park on Machinery Hill. They’d throw their cigarette butts out the car window. When lunchtime came, they’d pop the trunk on the Chevy and haul out a picnic basket.
Today, packing in food to the State Fair seems as mad and improbable as hauling your own Tilt-A-Whirl down to the Midway, but Brad Ribar knows this was true because he didn’t just see it with his own eyes, he swept it. He started sweeping it all in the 1960s as a pre-teen paper picker with the sanitation crew, stabbing paper with a pointed stick, and sweeping up cigarette butts. Next, he was promoted to “turdsman,” cleaning the livestock judging arenas and readying the barns for the mid-fair shift from, say, sheep to goats. After success as a turdsman, Ribar graduated to life on the service crew, cleaning up when folks drank too much and came to grief in the Grandstand. Finally, when he had a driver’s license, he vaulted to the ultimate position—garbage truck guy.
“None of it was glamorous, but it was all fun,” remembers Ribar, who grew up in Eagan and graduated from Henry Sibley High School. “My brothers, my cousins, my friends from school, we were all there.” They slept in sanitation crew dormitories under the Grandstand bleachers. His cousins and brothers were there because Ribar’s grandfather, Jim L. Libby, was the State Fair ground superintendent. The State Fair was an all-hands-on-deck situation for the family. The Libby Conference Center at the fair is named for Ribar’s uncle John E. Libby and also his grandpa Jim, and the fair and family estimate that someone in Ribar’s family line has been working at the fair since around 1919. (The very first State Fair, by the way, was in 1859 in downtown Minneapolis; the fair moved to its present permanent location in 1885.)
Ribar’s first memories of The Great Minnesota Get-Together predate the Haunted House and the Activities Building, and mainly involve things kids would remember, like snow and popcorn. Snow, because in the winter, his grandfather would haul the grandkids through the deserted and unplowed fairground streets on a toboggan; popcorn because his family ran a couple of popcorn stands near the cattle barn, and he was sometimes pressed into service running popcorn between the stands.
The family popcorn stand was an extension of the Corn Cabin, a popcorn and root beer stand owned by Ribar’s grandfather near Hiawatha and Lake in south Minneapolis. When he was a kid in the 1960s, Ribar says the State Fair had a new vision of people spending money on food at the fairgrounds rather than bringing their own meals, with the fair getting revenue from vendors (today, the fair takes 15 percent of every food vendor’s revenue). This led to Grandpa Libby and his family recreating the Corn Cabin popcorn model onsite.
Little did Ribar know that as he was hopping around the cattle barn and popcorn stand, his future wife was just a few blocks away in a hot dog stand. Yes, in 1982—in the manner of a prince from the royal House of Windsor marrying a princess from the royal House of Orange, but Minnesota State Fair–style—Brad Ribar fell in love with and married Lori Peters, descendant of the house of Peters Wieners (now Peters Hot Dogs), the anchor State Fair food building tenant that began selling hot dogs in 1939 and continues to this day. Ribar reports that more recently, when his and Lori’s kids were married, in attendance were the families of Tom Thumb mini-donuts, Dippin’ Dots ice cream, and Granny’s Caramel Apple sundaes. His son Matt Ribar now runs Duke’s Poutine at the State Fair, not far from the original family popcorn stand.
Brad Ribar leapt from popcorn to roast corn because he was such a State Fair sanitation fanatic that he’d spend his free weekends traveling to other state fairs to look for new sanitation best practices and innovations. On these journeys he saw a lot of things that confused him—the Florida state fair had bathroom matrons and porters who worked for tips—and one thing that changed his life forever: a stand at the Wisconsin State Fair where corn was roast in the husks over an open flame. He tasted it, and it was so much better than any corn he’d ever eaten at Minnesota’s fair, that he immediately volunteered to work at the stand, and asked questions and wrote down everything.
He took the idea back to Minnesota and developed it for his business school final project at St. Thomas. But when he pitched the project to the State Fair, it was rejected again and again, over the course of five years. “They just kept saying they couldn’t see it, no one would pay good money for corn on the cob,” says Ribar. Finally, in a fateful move, the O’Neill family decided to shut down their meatloaf operation near the Grandstand, and Ribar put in a bid to buy the building. He had a vision that was about more than corn. He wanted the corn roast to be an event, for people to be able to see the corn roasting and smell it. He tore out the building’s walls.
“When she saw what I did to it, Mrs. O’Neill said, ‘Son, you’d have been better off just putting that money in the bank,’” Ribar remembers. The first day he only sold 300 ears. Then the television duo of Steve Edelman and Sharon Anderson from the local television show Good Company came by and raved about the corn on television, and the rest is corn legend.
Today, Ribar tries to sell 200,000 ears every fair—at $3 a pop, a price that hasn’t risen in 13 years, that’s a harvest. They can sell as many as 2,400 ears an hour, and, for the duration of the fair, they go through 4,000 pounds of butter supplied by Wisconsin’s Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery. Ribar has a great sense of how difficult it is to time a harvest in Minnesota to a particular date, because in a cold year, your crop might be a week late, and in a hot year a week early. That’s why he pays the Untiedt family—yes, those Untiedts, of the very many metro-area roadside veggie stands—an ultra-premium price to plant some 20 acres of sweet corn just for the Corn Roast at time-staggered intervals. Most years, some of that corn comes ripe too early, or too late, but that’s just how it has to be to get the corn sweet enough. Every ear of corn sold at the stand is harvested the day before it’s eaten.
The favorite part of the State Fair day for this ex-paper picker is cleaning up at the end of the night. “I love the evening, once the fair is shut down and everyone is gone from the Grandstand,” says Ribar. “I’ve got my cleaning crew, just a couple guys who come in at night, and we power-wash the whole stand. I love to be here and hear the sanitation crew, to hear the backpack blowers up in the Grandstand. The whole fair, it’s so dirty by the end of the day, and it looks brand-new in the morning. I don’t know if you can appreciate how amazing the State Fair is, how absolutely amazing it all is, if you haven’t worked sanitation.”
Speaking of amazing: Can you imagine a land where someone who was practically born and raised at the Minnesota State Fair—whose business is as synonymous with the fair as the Sky Ride—still finds the whole thing amazing, every night for the 10 nights leading up to Labor Day? Brad Ribar is living in that amazing land, and power-washing it, too.