'Not just for breakfast anymore'
The Smith family makes it to the Minnesota State Fair
by John Grones | September 13, 2005
For McGregor residents, Denny and Barb Smith, the 9-year process is finally over. They’ve waited patiently as they’ve developed, tested and marketed the locally famous Cinnie Smiths (a warm, tasty version of a miniature cinnamon roll). Now, Denny and Barb made it to the Minnesota State Fair and their product is famous all over the state.
The slogan on the front of the Smith’s trailer reads, ‘Not just for breakfast anymore’, a feature they were banking on for added business. Judging by the lines which formed in front of their trailer from August 25th through Sept. 5th throughout the day, the slogan rings true.
Denny and Barb are ecstatic. They received their invitation to the Great Minnesota Get-together in March. “It was March 17,” said Denny. “I saved the message.”
Denny, who had a birthday on August 26, feels this was a tremendous gift. “Our first reaction was, ‘Is this for real?’” shared Barb. “We were hesitant at first, because one of our friends played a joke on us once.”
This particular message was no joke, and a 9-year dream was coming true.
Nine years may seem like a long time to wait to get into the Minnesota State Fair, but Denny and Barb shared the sophisticated process. The number one challenge is to have a unique food product – something they had. Then there were the other factors which state fair officials considered. “We had to have the right kind of trailer; they want people with the right demeanor; we are required to keep up with the demand; and they look at the utility requirements and space for the trailer,” said Denny and Barb.
It was this final factor which was the biggest hold up. According to Denny, they have one of the biggest, if not the biggest, trailers at the fair. This year, the space became available on the north end of the fairgrounds across from the Pet Center. The Smiths found out they had plenty of space and they even had room for several picnic tables in the shade of a few trees.
“We started out in 1997 with a stick stand and our last penny,” said Barb.
“And that’s the truth,” added Denny. “Ask the kids about all the peanut butter sandwiches. They still talk about it.”
The Smiths started out with a burger stand, but the Cinnie Smith was always an idea that was in the back of their minds. “It was a recipe of our own,” said Barb, “and we thought about it for three years. It kept bugging us. Finally, we said, ‘We have to do this.’”
“God kept bringing us back to it,” Barb and Denny both shared.
“So, I got into my kitchen and started making Cinnies,” said Barb. Denny noted that he ran around to all the neighbors during the sampling process. Barb eventually perfected the recipe to what it is today and the next challenge was how to mass produce them.
They first introduced them at the Steele County Fair in Owattona. Statistically, it the largest county fair in Minnesota. The Smiths already had a burger stand, but it was time to debut the Cinnies.
“I remember it was near the end of the fair when I approached Elmer Reseland (the organizer of the Owattona Fair).” Denny recalled with a grin. “I knew he would be tired, so I put together a nice presentation and approached him with a cup of Cinnies. He took one bite and said, ‘These are good and get out of here. I’m too tired. I know what you are up to Smith.’”
“He never lets me forget that,” Denny added.
As one would expect, the Cinnies were a hit and the Smiths experienced their first growing pains.
Barb drove all the way back to McGregor to work in the kitchen the first year at the fair. “At that time, it took all day long to make just five batches,” she said.
A year later, the Smiths restored a trailer and took it to the fair. “Now we could make 18 batches if we worked 24 hours ‘round the clock.”
So how many batches were made at the state fair? “Our best day was Friday,” reported Barb. “We did 73 batches. We’ve come a long way baby!”
Good Food Concessions is the official name of the family owned and operated business. Denny and Barb receive plenty of help from their children and other family members. “We have a saying for our children,” said Barb. “We call them the ‘under-the-counter-kids.’ Literally, since they were born, they have been under the counter.”
The counter wasn’t always as big and considering the fact they have seven children, it must have been a tight squeeze. Nellie (21), Dustin (20), Madeline (17), Emily (15), Woody (11), Cookie (9) and Peanut (6) have all pitched in to help grow the business.
Nellie currently works at Members Co-op Credit Union in McGregor, but helps with the concessions on weekends. She often drags her husband Justin along to help.
Dustin, also known as ‘Chopper’, now has his own concession stand selling Strawberry Smoothies. Dustin ended up filling in for his father at Wild Rice Days in McGregor, where he organized vendors. He also sold Strawberry Smoothies, of course. According to Dustin, everything went okay. He did, however, recognize how much work went into organizing the annual McGregor celebration.
Madeline and Emily spent the entire time at the State Fair this first year. Both are very cabable of running the concession stand without the help of their parents. According to Denny, the two are tremendous workers and are excellent at running the show.
Woody spent a couple of days at the fair. His duties often include the behind-the-scenes work. “He delivers supplies, takes orders, and cleans tables,” said Denny.
Cookie also takes orders. The Smiths call it “running the window”. Cookie put in one day at the fair and according to Denny, she made an impact on several of their customers. “She might be young, but she is very sharp and to the point,” he said. “She doesn’t have much time for chit-chat. She’s actually fun to watch. One customer actually said, ‘This girl rocks!’”
Peanut is the youngest of the Smith children. She has the duty of ‘tanking’ which involves loading the Cinnies into a cup. She also runs cups to the front of the trailer. “We try to keep it simple for her,” added Barb.
During the State Fair, the Smiths also relied on help from extended family and friends. Barb’s brother Lee and his wife Marnie, Denny’s sisters LeeAnn, Delores and Mary Kay, a niece Brittany, and friend Sunnah Maki all pitched in.
Wrapping up at the Fair
By Sunday, September 4, it was apparent the crew had put in some long days. Madeline noted she had been up since 6:30 and they wouldn’t finish up until around 1:00 a.m. This was a daily occurance.
Denny and Barb agreed. “We are going on 3-5 hours of sleep a night.”
In the end, it has been worth it. The Smiths feel they are finally headed in the right direction after building the business for so many years. Both agreed there is ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ after borrowing so much money to make it all happen.
What has made it so worthwhile has been the response to their product. Minneapolis Tribune food critic Rick Nelson gave the Cinnies a four-star rating this year. He said, “Each serving is a half-dozen 2-inch rolls, nicely yeasty and warm from the oven; their sprightly cinnamon kick and a nicely gooey caramel topping blissfully lacks Cinnabons’s cloying sweetness.” Denny wasn’t quite sure if the review was favorable until he realized the word cloying meant something too sweet – a term he used for Cinnabons.
The Smiths also learned the Channel 9 food critic Chef Andrew also gave the Cinnies a favorable rating. Barb noted that if he were to select a cinnamon roll, this would be the one he would choose.
Wrapping up at the State Fair didn’t mean wrapping up for the season. When they were done, they began preparations for their next stop – the Clay County Fair in Iowa. After that, it’s off to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Smiths actually travel as far south as Alabama. It turns out the Cinnies aren’t just famous in Minnesota. It appears Cinnie Smiths are going nationwide.
This article first appeared in the September 13, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.