Cheese curd vendor threatens to serve up a lawsuit against fair

Tom Mueller, the son of the owners of the original cheese curd stand at the Minnesota State Fair says he heard from a lot of people after his open letter to the fair was circulated.

But he said today he never got a response from the State Fair, which, citing policy, is barring Mueller’s parents, Dick and Donna Mueller, from transferring ownership of the booth. They started the cheese curd “tradition” in 1975.

A fair official said last month the Muellers weren’t clear about their intention to retire and transfer the business to their son, and said the elder Mueller had informed the fair that he intended to sell the business as there was no family member interested in taking it over.

Today, the Muellers’ attorney Arthur Boylan, sent a letter to fair general manager Jerry Hammer threatening a lawsuit:

The Minnesota State Fair holds a special place in the hearts. and minds of many Minnesotans. As a public corporation, the State Fair is entrusted with maintaining and preserving this cherished tradition and its institutions.

Unfortunately, as detailed in the Complaint, the State Fair has breached that trust by failing to follow its own rules, deliberately obscuring the availability of the process to transfer a business from one generation of a family to another, and unlawfully interfering with the continuation of The Original Cheese Curds at the State Fair. Frankly, at a minimum,. the longtime and beloved vendors of the State Fair deserve transparency of process and fair treatment.

We would like to sit down with you or other officials at the State Fair to discuss ways to find a mutually-agreeable solution before this becomes a matter for the Courts to decide. If we do not hear from you in the immediate future, we will proceed with the lawsuit. I genuinely will hope that proves unnecessary. I will await your call.

“When the time came for The Original Cheese Curds to transfer from one generation to the next, the State Fair led the elderly patriarch down a primrose path,” Boylan said in his complaint. “Instead of disclosing the process by which the business could be transferred, the State Fair encouraged Dick Mueller to relinquish his long-standing license by stating that there was no process to transfer to the next generation.”

Boylan said the fair doesn’t follow its own rules consistently and asserted that other businesses have been handed down from one generation to the next. His filing seeks $50,000.

The cheese curd state fair booth has been turned over to a bacon vendor.

  • BJ

    I’m bummed this is a deal. I like that they can’t be transferred. I hope one day that Martha’s Cookies is gone from the fair (hopefully after I’m dead), because I want the Next cheese curd and cookie place to have a 20 – 45 year run, and not just be the same places for 100 years.

    • Jerry

      It’s a tough balancing act between tradition and innovation

    • Kurt O

      Just buy a tube of cookie dough and you’ll get the same thing at
      10% of Sweet Martha’s prices.

  • MrE85

    The Original Cheese Curds may have gotten the boot, but the grilled pork chop booth will be gassing MPR for another 50 years.

    • Al

      With its beautiful, beautiful smoke… Man, I love that place.

  • Jim in RF

    There’s other curd places, and it seems that the rule is pretty clear (and for a good purpose). Let’s get something new — The Mercado, Kramarczuk’s, decent gyros, etc.

    • (From the suit)

      The State Fair does not always follow its own rules.
      27. In actuality, the State Fair and its officials regularly disregard the “rules,” create
      exceptions to the “rules” on an ad hoc basis or provide undisclosed “processes” to only some of
      the vendors at the State Fair.
      28. For example, some businesses, along with their accompanying licenses issued by
      the State Fair, have been passed down from one generation to the next generation.
      29. In fact, within the State Fair, some vendors have been operated by the same
      families, in the same location, and with the same offerings for decades.
      30. In recent public statements, the State Fair’s General Manager, Jerry Hammer, has
      confirmed as much. He has stated that, “We do transfer licenses, and that happens. There’s a
      procedure to get it done.”
      31. In addition, General Manager Jerry Hammer has specifically stated that, “We get
      approached fairly regularly about transferring licensing within families” and that “…most but not
      all requests are approved. We never got that request from Dick and his family.”
      32. The plain fact of the matter is that some vendors are given preferential treatment.
      As explained by General Manager Jerry Hammer: “In instances where a family member or
      business partner wishes to change the name on a State Fair vendor license, there is a simple
      process to do so,” Hammer said. “We do it regularly— most recently with Ye Old Mill.”
      33. The State Fair never made that process available to The Original Cheese Curds.
      Instead, the State Fair misrepresented the process that had to be followed and failed.
      34. In the years leading up to 2002, The Original Cheese Curds were sold in the State
      Fair’s food building, which is located between Underwood Street and Cooper Street near the
      bandshell. In approximately 2001, the State Fair decided to renovate the Food Building.
      35. This is not the first time that The Original Cheese Curds have been treated poorly.
      In connection with the renovation (and although The Original Cheese Curd stand had been in the
      Food Building for many years), the State Fair decided to grant a license to a different cheese curd
      vendor to operate within the Food Building.
      36. Given The Original Cheese Curds’ success in the Food Building over many years,
      there was no rational explanation for denying The Original Cheese Curds a license while
      granting another vendor a license to sell cheese curds in the same location. Nevertheless, in
      2002, the State Fair was not planning to grant a license to The Original Cheese Curds to operate
      anywhere on the State Fairgrounds. The owners of The Original Cheese Curds were forced to
      threaten action before the State Fair officials relented. But, in lieu of returning to the Food
      Building, The Original Cheese Curds was allowed a license to operate at a different location on
      the State Fairgrounds.
      37. To move to the new location, The Original Cheese Curds was required to make a
      substantial investment. Working with the State Fair, The Original Cheese Curds designed and
      constructed a new building on Dan Patch Avenue. The construction of a new building required a
      substantial investment by The Original Cheese Curds, which totaled approximately $200,000.
      Under the State Fair rules, any structures erected on the State Fairgrounds are considered
      “personal property” affixed to the real property that is the State Fairgrounds. The new building
      is hereinafter referred to as the “Building.”
      38. Since 2002, The Original Cheese Curds have been granted a license, have
      operated from the Building, and have served hundreds of thousands of cheese curds to attendees
      at the State Fair.
      39. In the fall of 2014, Dick Mueller approached the State Fair officials about his
      potential desire to transition the cheese curds business to the next generation. At the time, Dick
      Mueller was told that there was no process for transferring a business from one generation to the
      next generation.
      40. In 2014, the State Fair did not reveal that there was a “process” for the
      transitioning of a business from one generation to the next.
      41. In the winter of 2015, Dick Mueller sent Dennis Larson, License Administration
      Manager at the State Fair, Tom Mueller’s resume and indicated that Tom Mueller wanted to
      continue The Original Cheese Curds.
      42. Again, the State Fair did not reveal that there was a “process” for the transitioning
      of a business from one generation to the next.
      43. Dick Mueller did not take any further steps and The Original Cheese Curds were
      featured at the State Fair in 2015.
      44. On March 6, 2016, Tom Mueller and Dick Mueller met with Dennis Larson and
      one other State Fair official at the State Fair administration office. The purpose of the meeting
      was to reinforce Tom Mueller’s interest in continuing The Original Cheese Curds. During the
      March 6, 2016 meeting:
      a. State Fair officials acknowledged receipt of Tom Mueller’s resume and
      commented about Tom Mueller’s significant business experience.
      b. Dennis Larson stated that a license transfer was not an option. To
      reinforce this statement, Dennis Larson provided Tom Mueller a “FAQ” document.
      c. Dennis Larson stated that there was only one process by which Tom
      Mueller could continue The Original Cheese Curds, which included a Request For
      Proposal style competition at a later date. Specifically, Dennis Larson indicated that it
      would be required that (i) Dick Mueller submit notice that Dick Mueller was
      discontinuing The Original Cheese Curds after the 2016 Fair; (ii) Dick Mueller would
      have to sell the building (i.e., the personal property) back to the State Fair; (iii) The State
      Fair would then decide what to do with the space – either continue with cheese curds or
      substitute with a new product; (iv) if cheese curds was their choice, then they would look
      into their “database” of interested applicants for cheese curds, and they would open a
      RFP process to those applicants. He confirmed because of the long-standing relationship,
      Tom Mueller would certainly be included in that RFP process. He indicated others
      would be invited to compete in the RFP process too.
      d. There was no mention of a “process” to transfer as the State Fair’s General
      Manager has recently mentioned in media interviews.
      e. During the meeting, Dennis Larson required that Tom Mueller complete a
      license registration form. This is the same form available to anyone via the State Fair
      website. Dennis Larson stated that completing this form was a formality, and the real
      process for vendor consideration was when the open a RFP process.
      45. Again, at no point did the State Fair reveal that there was a “process” for the
      transitioning of a business from one generation to the next at this time either.
      46. The Original Cheese Curds were featured at the State Fair in 2016.
      47. After the 2016 State Fair, Tom Mueller called Dennis Larson several times to
      inquire about the timing of the RFP process. Tom Mueller anticipated that he needed appropriate
      lead time to prepare a competitive bid.
      48. Dennis Larson did not return Tom Mueller’s calls.
      49. In January 2017, after Dick Mueller formally notified the fair he would not be
      returning, but before he sold the building, Tom Mueller again spoke with Dennis Larson. During
      that conversation, Dennis Larson outlined the same steps described in paragraph 44 and also
      indicated that the process would begin only after Dick Mueller sold the Building to the State
      50. The State Fair rules contain a specific rule regarding transfer, sale, or removal of
      the personal property such as the Building from the State Fairgrounds.
      51. Prior to February 2017, The Original Cheese Curds did not indicate to the State
      Fair that they intended to sell or transfer the Building to a third party.
      52. On February 1, 2017, the State Fair wrote to Dick Mueller. In that letter, Dennis
      Larson indicated that “by this correspondence, we would like to advise you that the Minnesota
      State Fair will be exercising its authority to purchase the subject structure from you as provided
      for under the Minnesota State Agricultural Society Rule, 2.10 Transfers of personal property
      interests. Funds will be available to consummate this sale in March; at which time a check will
      be made out to you….”
      53. The State Fair rules only allow for the State Fair to exercise its “authority” in lieu
      of a proposed sale to a third party.
      54. Because The Original Cheese Curds had not expressed any intention to sell its
      personal property to a third party, the State Fair did not have the “authority” to demand a
      purchase of the personal property.
      55. The State Fair violated its own rules in demanding a sale of the personal property.
      56. In fact, prior to the February 1, 2017 letter, the State Fair had already unilaterally
      selected an appraiser to conduct an appraisal of the Building. The appraiser claimed that the
      Building was worth only $48,000.
      57. In response to the low ball appraisal, The Original Cheese Curds provided
      information regarding the original cost to build and the cost associated with some of the
      improvements to the property over time. In response, the State Fair-selected appraiser adjusted
      the appraisal of the Building by $19,000.

      • Thomas Mercier

        Sounds a bit like arbitrary and capricious application of the rules if the letter’s contentions are verified.

      • Jim in RF

        Would be curious to hear the Fair’s version. My natural inclination is to not trust a bureaucracy, but some of these statements are short on authority and evidence.

  • IIRC, the State Fair claimed that the elder Mueller, when planning for his retirement, remarked that his children were not interested in continuing the stand’s operation.

    “Dick informed us after the 2014 State Fair that he planned to retire
    within the next few years. At that time, he said that he had no other
    business partner with an interest in continuing the cheese curd
    operation,” Hammer said in an email to the Pioneer Press seeking comment
    about the situation. “Following the ’16 State Fair, Dick said he was
    retiring, and that he was interested in selling the structure, which the
    State Fair purchased in March.”