Sunday, August 30, 2009

Church dining halls at fair now small but mighty force

. . .Of all the on-the-fly eating options, the fair's four remaining volunteer-run, church dining halls are the antithesis of today's harried lifestyle. Although their numbers are down from 17 a few generations ago, the dining halls are flexing their resiliency and appear as popular as ever through the first days of the 2009 State Fair.

The St. Bernard's Bulldog Lodge just inside the main gate hauled in $7,400 on Thursday, up from $6,000 on last year's opening day and on pace to top $90,000 in gross revenue for the 12-day run. The money goes to offset tuition at the church's school on St. Paul's North End. The Epiphany Dining Hall was up $3,500 from last year's first day. . . .

Longtime State Fair Manager Jerry Hammer said the dining halls are a reminder of a time when more than half of Minnesotans lived on farms, compared with 2 percent today. "Those dining halls that popped up on the fairgrounds way back were a reflection of what most people were used to doing," Hammer said. "And that was sitting down and eating a big noontime meal of meat and potatoes everyday."

In their book "The Minnesota State Fair, An Illustrated History" (Coffeehouse Press), Linda and Kathyrn Koutsky published a handful of photos showing now long-gone church dining halls. "There were certainly dozens, and some were just little stands with stools," Kathryn said. "But they were all staffed by volunteers and offered mashed potatoes, hot roast beef and pie. . . ."

Two years ago, the parish council met at the Church of the Epiphany, a 5,000-member Catholic house of worship in Coon Rapids. Despite the work of dozens of volunteers, fair proceeds were down. "We knew we had to either keep up with the times or say goodbye to the fair, and we didn't want to do that," said Rhonda Dillon, a Epiphany member and dining manager. So the church invested $30,000 to remodel its dining hall, opening up the place with big garage doors. They put in smaller, cozier tables and ditched the long benches. They retired the old meatloaf and this year, for the first time, are selling onion rings along with burger baskets, fried chicken and breakfasts.

It's working. Lines have been long. And Father Dennis Zehren, wearing his Roman collar, has been busy taking orders from those waiting out on the sidewalk. "God calls on us to rest, and it's a good sign to see people lining up to sit down and relax," Zehren said. "We welcome the weary fairgoers with open arms. . . ." Star Tribune

These parishes might look at some of the more successful parish festivals around here. Some of them, even in not very prosperous neighborhoods, NET over $100,000 in a weelend or two. Of course, it takes a tremendous amount of management and planning and virtually every member of the parish, and some non-members, too.

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