You could easily argue that fresh, straight-from-the-oven, homemade chocolate chip cookies are our national comfort food — the perfect snack at Grandma’s house, a pick-me-up baking project on a cold January day, and the ultimate offering to Santa — neatly arranged on a plate with a tall glass of milk beside a colorfully crayoned note on Christmas Eve.
Sweet, salty. Chewy, gooey. Classic. Timeless. Wholesome. Love.
All hail the beloved chocolate chip cookie.
And all hail the undisputed Queen of the chocolate chip cookie, Martha Rossini Olson — or as we know her in Minnesota, Sweet Martha.
Olson, 65, is a St. Paul native. Growing up on the east side of Como Lake, just a stone’s throw from the state fairgrounds, Olson attended the Great Minnesota Get Together several times per season. It was a summer ritual for her family.
Today, Olson can scarcely fathom her own status a State Fair phenomenon.
“You sort of don’t believe it,” she said. “When you’re a kid you think, ‘Wouldn’t it just be the best to have a stand here?’ And one day I did. And it grew and grew.”
Though many Minnesotans look forward to attending the state fair, we don’t all actually dream of owning a stand there, as young Martha did.
That level of fair enthusiasm takes a certain type of person, 12 days of superhuman energy and — as Olson is quick to point out — a strong team of quality people.
How did it all start?
Though Olson happened to become the brand name, and therefore the face, of Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar early on, the business is truly run by a team of four partners — Martha, her husband, Gary, and their longtime friends, Neil and Brenda O’Leary.
Generally speaking, the women each run one stand by day and their husbands take over by night.
But all four owners basically survive on about five hours of sleep a night during those unofficial last days of summer.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Olsons owned a frozen yogurt stand in Minneapolis, when frozen yogurt was (for the first time) all the rage.
Their initial pitch to the State Fair was a yogurt stand.
“They said they wanted cookies,” she said. “We accepted because we just wanted to be at the fair.”
It all came on rather suddenly.
“We basically found out we’d be making cookies about three weeks before the fair started,” Olson said.
Creating a super-cookie
Immediately, the team started pulling together recipes. They asked all the moms they knew for their best cookie recipes. Then they baked and tested and sought expert advice from the vendors they’d worked with over the years at the yogurt shop.
“We tried chocolate chips from all over before settling on bittersweet,” Olson said. “We knew we wanted fresh out the oven; we knew we had to have the best ingredients. Luckily, we had access to the best through our vendors. There were so many decisions in that first year — a lot of scrambling.”
The now-famous Sweet Martha recipe is actually a combination of all those recipes they tried before opening for business for the first time.
The brand’s cookies are often proclaimed “better than Mom’s” because they actually took the best ideas from several moms’ recipes and combined them into one super-cookie — unapologetically traditional and, some folks argue, undeniably perfect.
Like Mom used to make
New fairgoers are prone to asking, “What’s the big deal? They’re just cookies.”
This was the initial challenge Olson and the gang faced during their inaugural year at the fair.
With the state fair offering so many weird foods, things on a stick and deep-fried delicacies — considered socially acceptable really only once a year — why would fairgoers buy something they could surely make at home at any time?
All it took to answer that question was a simple taste.
“We gave away a lot of free samples that first year,” Olson said “Once they tasted the cookies, they wanted more.”
They were fresh-mixed, fresh-baked, hot out of the oven and made with the finest ingredients — the real deal, like Mom used to make.
What seemed to keep people coming back to Sweet Martha’s — originally a 9-by-11-foot stand — is what keeps them coming back today: Chocolate chip cookies are one of life’s simple pleasures.
It’s what the fair’s all about — timeless traditions, time with family.
Keeping the machine going
Over the years, the cookie stand has become a true family affair.
Martha and Gary Olson’s children — Jen, 30, and Dave, 33 — have been a part of the operation since day one, when they were school-aged kids.
They’ll be taking a more active role than ever before this year as Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar opens a third stand on the north end of the fairgrounds, an area Olson still refers to as “Machinery Hill.”
While Dave basically helps with the family business year round, Jen — who lives in New York City and works in the fashion industry — comes in for those last two weeks before Labor Day. Whenever she receives a new position within a new company, getting time off for the fair is an absolute must in her list of negotiations.
Also part of the yearly crew are the O’Leary’s son, Charlie, dozens of nieces and nephews and many dear friends.
When it comes to hiring additional staff a team of about 450 in all — the Sweet Martha team does things a bit differently than some of the other vendors.
“We basically let our employees pick their hours,” Olson said. “It’s the end of summer; many of the kids have begun fall sports. We want them to be able to have their lives and also be a part of the booth. That’s how we get such good caliber people: They don’t have to give up everything to do this.”
That said, some of her employees do put life on hold to work at the fair — particularly the adults, who are her managers. They hold tight to a sustaining mantra: “You can do anything for 12 days.”
No. 1 seller
The perfect recipe, the unwavering adherence to quality, a high-energy staff and genius branding have put Sweet Martha at the top of the sales chart for food vendors, year after year, at the fair.
The cookies beat the competition by a landslide: In 2014, according to Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal, Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar topped the sales charts with $2,902,825 in gross revenue, miles ahead of the No. 2 vendor, which came in at $1,037,272.
And let’s explore who was at No. 2 — the Midwest Dairy Association with its all-you-can-drink milk bar.
Coincidence? Probably not.
It’s become a tradition of some fairgoers to pick up Martha’s famous cookie bucket and grab a picnic table at the milk bar with a group of friends.
Though Martha’s “State Fair Deal” cone of cookies comes with choice of milk or coffee for $9, it’s the take-home pail of cookies that’s the bestseller for $16.
Containing at least four-dozen cookies — though you have to eat a dozen before you can even close the lid — the signature pail is street marketing at its best: You see plenty of the thousands of people at the fair carrying the pails — and you start to want one, too!
And, after waiting in sometimes long, long lines for the cookies, fairgoers like to stock up, maybe even taking some home to the freezer to preserve a bit of state fair flavor for later.
For some cookie fans, the pilgrimage to Martha’s has become as essential to the state fair as nightly fireworks, oversized stuffed animals and the phrase “on a stick.”
A nearly year-round deal
It might sound like a dream come true — show up at the fair, make yummy cookies and sell millions of them to happy fairgoers. And it is, Olson said.
But it’s also a ton of work.
Though Olson and her team begin preparing for the fair in earnest in May, they start receiving letters in February from cookie-booth hopefuls looking for work.
There’s set up, of course, and throughout the fair it’s really round-the-clock action: To make things run smoothly, team members must keep meticulous inventory records and place frequent orders with suppliers. (Yes, the cookie ingredients are delivered fresh daily.)
Then, after the fair, cleanup begins. It takes 90 people and goes on for about two weeks. There’s a huge payroll to complete, followed by an employee party for the cookie booth staff, who happily come to celebrate and pick up their checks.
As things settle down, Olson continues doing bookkeeping — and doesn’t really call the fair “over” until October.
Up until five years ago, Olson was an elementary art teacher at Highland Catholic School in St. Paul — so all of this would transpire around her day job, with the first day of school falling the morning after the last day at the fair.
Though she sorely misses teaching, retirement has allowed Sweet Martha to expand the cookie empire.
Throughout the year she does demos. And Sweet Martha’s has launched a frozen line — available in grocery stores such as Lunds & Byerlys and Cub — including five flavors (original, gourmet chocolate chunk, peanut butter chocolate chunk, oatmeal chocolate chunk and macadamia nut white chocolate chunk).
Meanwhile, Sweet Martha’s sometimes sells cookies at other events held at the fairgrounds, such as the Back to the 50s car show and, new this year, the Soundset music festival.
Olson is enjoying getting a third location going.
“There’s a lot of preparation in ordering equipment, getting things squared away with the Health Department and such, but there’s a lot less anxiety,” she said. “We’ve done this all before.”
What does Olson do when the work is finally done, in the brief breath before they start thinking about the next year?
“In October, we hope to have a family trip,” Olson said. “In October, it’s safe to say we can stop thinking about the fair for a while.”
Olson also loves to read, garden and restore old houses.
Miraculously — though every new person she meets expects her to have them on hand and every potluck host expects her to bring them — she’s not sick of cookies yet.
Cookies, after all, have provided her a pretty sweet life and eternal status as a Minnesota State Fair icon.
So what’s Martha’s favorite state fair food — other than her ubiquitous cookies?
When she finds a few minutes to sneak away from the cookie booths, Olson heads for the fresh fruit stands and the purveyors of fruit smoothies.
Her health, after all, must be stable throughout those two weeks.
“I love, love, love the fair. Loved it since I was a child,” she said. “Now I get in at 7 a.m. and basically don’t see anything but the cookie booth, but I still truly love it.”
Jen Wittes is a freelance writer who lives in St. Paul. Learn more about her work at jenwittes.com.
Minnesota State Fair
The Great Minnesota Get-Together is one of the largest and best- attended expositions in the world, attracting nearly 1.8 million visitors every year, showcasing Minnesota’s finest agriculture, horticulture, art and industry, plus carnival rides, games, live music and food vendors aplenty.
When: Aug. 25–Sept. 5. Seniors & Kids Day is Aug. 29 with gate admission reduced to $8 for ages 65 and older and ages 5 to 12. Seniors Day is Sept. 1 with $8 admission for age 65 and up at the gate. Look online for information about library, military and other discount days.
Where: Minnesota State Fairgrounds, St. Paul
Cost: Advanced tickets start at $10. Daily gate admission is $13 for ages 13–64; $11 for ages 5–12 and 65 and older; and free for ages 4 and younger.