Owners of beloved Iowa State Fair cookie stand retire, but the buckets of cookies will live on
The longtime owners of one of the Iowa State Fair's most popular food stands are stepping down after 26 years of serving up buckets of ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies.
But fans of Barksdale Chocolate Chip Cookies won't go hungry.
On Thursday, Joe and Virginia Barksdale announced the Iowa State Fair will take over the couple's four cookie stands and expand production, creating even more cookies for fairgoers.
"We are giving back to the people because they're the ones who bought the cookies," Joe Barksdale, 92, said. "There's no reason not to give back."
Barksdale Chocolate Chip Cookies has been serving hot, fresh chocolate chip cookies since 1993. It sold more than 2 million cookies during the Iowa State Fair this year, Barksdale said.
That's two cookies for every person who visited the fair.
"We are so proud the Barksdale family selflessly entrusted us to continue their family legacy," fair CEO Gary Slater said in a news release. "We can't wait to carry on the tradition and continue to bring those same warm chocolate chip cookies to fairgoers."
Barksdale Cookies almost didn't happen
Despite its popularity today, Barksdale Chocolate Chip Cookies was not an immediate hit when it launched.
"We probably gave away more than we sold," Barksdale said. "People just weren't interested in cookies."
For seven years, the cookie stand, which started in the Varied Industries Building, operated at a loss, he said. The couple dipped into the profits from its other two other food stands, an ice cream stand and a sandwich stand, to keep the cookie business afloat.
Finally, in 2000 — Barksdale's eighth year — the cookies began to take off.
"By 2003, I was making all the cookies I could make," Barksdale said.
Running out of space in the Varied Industries Building, he began petitioning the Iowa State Fair to build a new facility on the fairgrounds.
"I was unable to get that done, so I had a special baking trailer manufactured," he said. Four years later, he petitioned the fair to build again, but was rebuffed. So, he added a third stand, and then a fourth.
Barksdale Chocolate Chip Cookies now has four stands spread throughout the fairgrounds.
The cookies come from a recipe that was passed down from Barksdale's paternal grandmother, Maggie Barksdale, to his mother and eventually his wife.
That cookie recipe ended up at the center of a record-breaking year in 2019, when the Barksdales sold 23,000 buckets and 44,000 cups of cookies over the 11 days of the Iowa State Fair.
The business has come a long way from the early years when no one thought cookies were "fair food," Barksdale said.
"That's no longer true," he said. "One of the biggest things now is the chocolate chip cookies on the grounds."
A new chapter and a new building
After 15 years of prodding, the Iowa State Fair's board of directors approved Barksdale's request to build a new cookie facility last year.
But by that point, the couple had already decided to step away.
"We gave a lot of thought to building a building but after several months, the family decided not to," Barksdale said. "That's when I told Gary (Slater) that I would like to give to the people of Iowa my cookie business."
The Iowa State Fair will purchase the Barksdales' stands and the equipment used to make the cookies. State Fair officials said a final purchase price has not yet been reached.
The Barksdales are throwing in the name — the stands will be called the Barksdale State Fair Chocolate Chip Cookies — and the cookie recipe for free.
The State Fair is moving ahead on building the new facility, which will quadruple production.
The 40-by-100-foot building near the Maytag theaters will have three ovens that can bake 48 pans of cookies at a time. Their kitchen in the Varied Industries Building has three oven capable of baking 10 pans.
The fair has already broken ground on the project.
"People won't have to stand in line 20 to 25 minutes to get cookies as people have had to do in the past," Barksdale said.
The fair will use the same supplier and hire current employees to bake the cookies, Barksdale said.
"It's a phenomenal thing," Barksdale said.
The legend lives on
The Barksdale family has had a presence on the Iowa State Fairgrounds for 43 years.
"Our first concession stand on the fairgrounds was in 1976." Barksdale said. "We sold hot sliced roast beef, genuine roast beef, and then we added something called the St Louis Rib that became very popular, a big sandwich at the time."
Like many concessionaires, the Barksdales had other occupations for the remainder of the year.
Joe Barksdale, an Alabama native, moved his family to Des Moines in 1958 after being offered a job at Alsco of Iowa, a company that sold windows. He retired after 44 years with the company. His wife Virginia, or Jenny, was a registered nurse.
And even though they've retired from their full-time jobs, leaving their baking business is a whole different bucket of cookies altogether.
"I have mixed emotions about it. It's hard to walk away," Barksdale said. "I'm very happy making the decision for the people of Iowa to own it and after 25 years. It will be good for the Iowa State Fair."
He and his wife plan to spend their winters in Florida.
"We're going to go down and get out of this cold weather," he said. "My wife, she's already started packing."
The Iowa State Fair will be held Aug. 13-23, 2020.