The last church food stand at the Iowa State Fair clings to tradition
Take a look as members of the West Des Moines United Methodist Church run through a soft opening of their food booth ahead of the Iowa State Fair.
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 denoting 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.
Amid this upheaval, the WDM Methodist stand is classically quaint — a corner of the fair where the conversation flows as easily as the coffee. The stand doesn’t serve alcohol, so families wanting to avoid the rowdier side of the fair can find respite in the large seating area, which easily accommodates strollers and multi-generational households. Congregants pride themselves on good, simple food — eggs, bacon, loose meat sandwiches and pie — at low prices, said Larry Sample, 72, one of the co-chairs of the church’s State Fair committee.
“We take the time to sit and visit with people and make them feel welcome,” said Bob Meyers, 88, a church stand volunteer since 1960. “They enjoy it, and all of a sudden they get to talking and it feels almost like home, I’d say. Like a barbecue with family. And that’s what brings people back.”
In that vein, the church does its best to position its stand at the intersection of tradition and relevance. The volunteers tweak their menu a bit each year (diners can look forward to a new brand of sausage at the stand this year); they fix up their seats for maximum comfort; and they even get in on the “stuff on the stick” trend.
Saddle up to their stand and amid menus and napkins and table salt, you’ll find their speared offering: a prayer — on a tongue depressor.
In the beginning…
The WDM Methodist stand started in 1949, when just about anyone could set up a food stall on the fairgrounds, said Millie Knee, daughter of one of the stand’s founders. Where today there are applications and forms and hoops to jump through, then there were two questions: Do you have food and can you serve it?
The stand was the brain child of one of the church’s women’s circles, and Irma Meyers, Knee’s mother, was approached to lead the charge soon after her husband died. In a memo describing the “Altruist Class” of people who worked the stand in those early years, Meyers wrote that taking on the responsibility of the fair stand was “good therapy.”
“She would take our 5-year-old brother with her and work from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. managing that stand,” Knee said. “She took her recipes down there and she made a chiliburger, a type of loose meat sandwich, which they still sell today. This was a cause she was strongly dedicated to.”
After a good run, Meyers went back to work full-time, and some men from the church took over the stand. From 1954 until this year, the church’s men’s organization helmed the stand.
In 1974, the stand had its most revolutionary idea yet: pie.
Helen Brantley was tapped to bake apple pies using fruit from a fellow member’s orchard. She made just a few to start because church members “weren’t sure if pie would sell at the fair.” One day mid-fair, she dropped off a handful of completed confections to little fanfare.
“By the time I came home, they had already called and said they needed more pie,” Brantley remembered. Today, the church gets its pies from a member who’s a professional baker.
The addition of pie isn’t the only transformation the food stand has weathered over the years. The church used to sling hash for 24 hours, but now the stand generally runs from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The building itself used to be “rustic,” as Knee termed it, with a floor of sawdust and wood chips and a tarp for a roof. In 1975, the church built a permanent structure, which it still uses.
At the close of the 2016 fair, the men’s group’s aging members huddled and decided they needed help organizing the efforts. After getting buy-in, the stand became a mission project for the entire church.
So far, members have heeded that call, Sample said, generously filling out the various fair committees and filling in that giant sign-up sheet.
When church stand begat church stand
During the many years Knee’s mother ran the fair stand, Knee would run the fairgrounds. She distinctly remembers the area known as Church Row, the straightaway where a collection of churches once hosted dining halls.
“You used to walk down there, and the people in the church stands would holler at you, ‘Come eat with us! Support church such-and-such!'” Knee remembered.
Churches have been a part of the fair since its beginnings, said fair CEO Slater.
“Back in the day, there really weren’t organized concessionaires,” he said. “Instead when there was a big event like the fair, you called upon organizations like local churches to provide those services.”
But in recent years, there have been just a handful of church stands at the fair. At least four churches — Chesterfield Christian Church, Tri-Met Methodist, the Basilica of St. John and West Des Moines Methodist — had booths within the past two decades, according to fair records.
The Chesterfield Church’s stand opened in 1912 to help raise money to rebuild its building, which was gutted by fire, according to the Register archives. It was the fair's longest-running concession stand until it closed in 2002.
"Serving homemade food to 11,000 people for 14 straight days requires more work than the church's remaining volunteers could handle," a 2003 news story explained, citing $30,000 in needed repairs that the tiny congregation could not afford. "Last year, the church — where membership has slipped from more than 100 people to about 15 — had to hire help."
The Basilica of St. John's "Brother Bubba's Basilica Bar-B-Q," which was named for the holy brothers who worked there, ran into similar staffing issues in the 1990s.
When the parish priory closed, the basilica relied on its congregation — predominantly older workers — and there just weren’t enough volunteers, conceded Dwayne Weuve, the business manager who oversaw the stand.
Also, pricing got more competitive, and the basilica's corner of the fair became crowded with other options. In Bubba's best year, the church stand cleared $13,000 net profit, Weuve said. It was the parish's largest annual fundraiser, and the church hasn't been able to replace it.
The profit is hard for WDM Methodist to think of giving up, too, Sample said. The money the church makes, which adds up to tens of thousands a year, is used for mission work. Whether through local improvements, community engagement or sending youth groups and adult missionaries around the world, every cent made at the fair goes back to the church’s calling, said Ken Ferguson, the other co-chair.
But outside of the financial gains, many who work at the stand see it as a time for fellowship, said church member Tom Ackerman. When you work eight hours at the stand with other church members, you create a special kind of bond, one full of those “remember when” stories.
On some level, Ackerman said, the stand is also a public service, a place for “good works.” It’s a comfortable, calm locale for people to rest, which is enough, but if those people also want to talk about the church, that’s so much the better.
“We’ve been out there as long as a lot of people have been alive,” Ackerman said. “I can’t tell you how many people will tell volunteers about how they used to come here with their mom and dad when they were little and how much that connection to the past means to them.”
The stand is on pretty stable ground for the future, said Sample and Ferguson. Most church members don’t want to see it fold — Knee called the thought “devastating” — so they are doubling their efforts to find younger people to ensure their fate at the fair. This year, they started a volunteer “internship” in which the intern is rewarded with elevated status for his or her work with the church’s State Fair Council.
With the entire church behind the mission now, the 2017 sign-up sheet is looking pretty full, and excitement is high. But, considering the fair is so close, the church is focused on one thing and one thing only, Meyers said: “We just need people to show up hungry!”
If the way to the soul of the fair is through its stomach, you just might find it at the West Des Moines Methodist Church stand.
Iowa columnist Kyle Munson contributed to this report.