Featured Stories, Lutherans in Minnesota

Salem Lutheran serves up holy chow

Food and fellowship helps State Fair dining hall survive

Everyone who devotes a day to seeing the sights at the Minnesota State Fair has their own traditions, the must-sees and must-eats. For thousands of Fair-goers, a stop at the Salem Lutheran Church Dining Hall is on that list.

“We always have a line when we open at 7 a.m.,” said Carol Logeais, a member of Salem Lutheran (ELCA) and a longtime dining hall volunteer. “Our regulars wouldn’t think of coming to the Fair without coming to see us. They like that never-empty cup of coffee.”

It is not uncommon to see long lines in front of the Salem Lutheran Dining Hall at the Minnesota State Fair. This photo, provided by Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, is from the 1990 fair.

Located in the Camden neighborhood in North Minneapolis, Salem Lutheran was home to a thriving middle-class congregation in 1949, the year church volunteers perked their first famed Swedish egg coffee. The original booth was a tent pitched over a dirt floor. Church members turned out hearty made-from-scratch cooking — buttermilk pancakes for breakfast and hand-patted Swedish meatballs for dinner. The meals appealed to farm families who wanted to tuck into familiar food.

The menus and recipes have changed little in the intervening decades, and the Salem Lutheran Dining Hall is still staffed by volunteers — 50 a day for 12 days, plus workers who ready the 60-seat booth and then close up at fair’s end.

“It’s a big project,” said Logeais, 79, who began volunteering in the 1950s. She and her husband Ralph chaired the church’s Fair committee for many years. That meant opening every morning during the 12-day stretch of the Fair, with a 4:10 a.m. arrival to get the day started.

“Our older members who want to work ask for a sitting-down job,” she said. “We don’t have any sitting-down jobs. We hustle!”

The ten days of Labor Day

At one time, more than a dozen churches ran dining halls, but the number of Fair operations has plummeted. Only three church dining halls will be in business this year when the Minnesota State Fair opens August 26. The number will slip to just two for 2012’s Great Get-Together.

Dennis Larson, licensing administration manager at the Fair, thinks the lack of gimmicky food-on-a-stick and the church’s struggle to find enough volunteer workers share the blame for the demise.

“Years ago, women in the congregation would make food at home and bring it to the Fair in roaster pans; it was free money for the churches. Because of health and safety regulations, now they have to run a commercial kitchen. It’s a lot of work and not that much of a profit.”

The Salem Lutheran Church Dining Hall has served up good food for many years.

In recent years, Salem Lutheran has seen its membership both age and dwindle. At the same time, the church developed an active ministry with inner-city youth in the neighborhood. Profits from the Minnesota State Fair project — estimated at between $20,000 and $25,000 annually — fund the ministry.

So Salem Lutheran Church began an innovative outreach partnership to snag volunteers to toast the bread, brew the coffee, and greet the hungry customers. The church recruited new workers in three other Lutheran churches: Cambridge Lutheran (ELCA) in Cambridge, Calvary Lutheran in Golden Valley (independent), and Elim Lutheran (ELCA) in Robbinsdale, all in Minnesota.

“Volunteers from the other churches like it so well, they come back year after year,” Logeais said. “It’s their way to contribute to our work. Our teenagers are here working and volunteers get to work alongside them, the same kids who benefit from this.”

On a hot afternoon last year, Carol Bell and her husband Terry arrived at the Fairgrounds from Cambridge to pull a shift for Salem. While Carol tied on an apron and waitressed, Terry did kitchen duty and savored the signature Swedish egg coffee.

“His dad used to make egg coffee, so it really took him back,” Carol Bell said. “We enjoyed meeting the youth. There’s a lot to be said for intergenerational events where you work side-by-side.”

Sharlene Hensrud, a member of Calvary Lutheran, found it easy to step in as a volunteer. “I couldn’t get over how well-planned and well run it was,” she recalled. “Even the kids were well-trained.”

Tips from customers are collected and, at the end of every day, divided. One half goes into the church youth fund, and the other is divided among Salem Lutheran’s teenage workers.

“For our kids, that is a big deal,” said Logeais. “One boy was so excited. He said, ‘I’ve got enough tips to buy a new shirt for school.’” She paused and cleared her throat. “To be able to give them that pleasure — it’s great.”

If you want to stop by the Salem Lutheran Dining Hall when you’re at the Fair this year, head to the northeast corner of the Fairgrounds and look for the big blue coffee pot perched on the sign atop the booth. The staff is friendly, the food is fresh, and the spirit is present.

“We do a short morning prayer together and I always said, let’s remember we are bringing Christ to people and they see Christ in us,” said Carol Logeais. “The kids sometimes look startled when I say that, but they think about it.”

Kevyn Burger is a freelance journalist in the Twin Cities.

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