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As the State Fair changes, the last church food stand clings to tradition

There’s a sign-up sheet in the basement of the West Des Moines Methodist Church that looks like the Container Store let loose on a poster board. It’s the king of sign-up sheets, and one glance at its methodically charted grids, tiny boxes, color codes and sticky notes donating important updates tells part of the story behind the church’s beloved Iowa State Fair food stand.

For 11 days, the church needs 226 volunteers to staff two eight-hour shifts per day, plus a special two-person “clean-up crew” that works for two hours after the fair closes. Each of these volunteers will be pummeled with more numbers as the fair goes on: 350 egg sandwiches need to be ready by 6 a.m., each plate of biscuits and gravy gets two biscuits and, most importantly, every pie should yield exactly seven slices.

But figures tell only part of this storied stand’s tale; the other portion is less analytical and more spiritual. The West Des Moines Methodist Church is the last remaining Christian organization to host an eatery on the fairgrounds, making them the final vestige in a church food stand tradition that stretches back to the very first fair. Vowing to return every year they’re able, church members see staying open as a duty not just for themselves, but for the many religious stands that came before.

“It’s a State Fair staple that has become a tradition for our fairgoers,” fair CEO Gary Slater said of the stand. “They do things the old-fashioned way, and people know, when you go down to the West Des Moines Methodist stand, they are going to serve you right.”

Still, running the stand isn’t an easy task. Despite making tens of thousands of dollars each fair — the church’s largest fundraiser by far — the congregation relies on its aging members to work the stand. And with each year comes new unexpected adjustments: added labor regulations, tighter health codes, unavoidable stand upkeep and further volunteer headaches.

This year, more changes than usual seem to be afoot at the fair. The Midway has been transformed with a la carte vendors rather than a single amusement company.

The fair for the first time staged a sort of Food Network extravaganza to unveil its new foods. Longtime fair volunteer Arlette Hollister won’t be the guru of the famous cooking competitions. And Jalapeno Pete’s, a music venue right near the Grandstand, got a face-lift costing more than $400,000 — about double the intended price tag.

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