Hot dish on a stick?
Ole and Lena are often the butt of Scandinavian American jokes, especially in the Midwest. But there’s no joking around when it comes to Ole and Lena at the Minnesota State Fair.
For 12 years, Ole and Lena’s food trailer located outside the Midway by the horse barn has been dishing up hot dish on a stick. Tater tot hot dish with meatballs, no less. The stand is owned by Dave and Renae Jeno and operated by Stacy Burton, all from Owatonna.
By the time the fair ends on Labor Day, Burton estimated Ole and Lena’s will have cranked out more than 8,500 hot dish sticks. In addition, the stand offered Norwegian onion rings and deep fried banana splits. But the hot dish on the stick is by far the most popular item fairgoers indulge in every year.
“Our hot dish is meatballs and tater tots dipped into a corn dog batter and deep fried,” Burton explained. It is served with a creamy mushroom gravy on the side.
The tater tot hot dish often draws curiosity from folks who are, well obviously, not from Minnesota. “We are often asked what is hot dish,” Burton says. “This is the most Minnesotan food you can find.”
Renae Jeno came up with the ingenious idea 12 years ago. She knew she needed to come up with something unique because it is extremely difficult to get a food stand into the State Fair. “We just thought Minnesota and hot dish,” Jeno said. “We eat a lot of hot dish and Minnesota is always hot dish.”
It took the Jenos a few times to perfect their product in the early years. “Originally we did not have breading on it,” she said, noting the only requirement for them was that it had to be on a stick. They developed a batter and served the gravy on the side.
Jeno said she is delighted when she hears fairgoers tell her their stand is the first place they venture to at the fair. “That’s the best part,” she said. “It gives you goose bumps.”
For Burton, working at Ole and Lena’s gives her a clean break from the routine of caring for three young children ages 9, 7 and 3 at home. “It gets me out of my daily routine,” said Burton, a stay-at-home mother. During the fair, her husband gets a full taste of the child duties. “It’s a break in your lifestyle from home and a change of pace.”
Her family doesn’t seem to mind her being gone for nearly two weeks. She used last year’s proceeds she made from the stand to take the family on a trip to Disney World over spring break. “It was a big deal,” Burton said.
When asked what her primary function is during the fair at Ole and Lena’s, Burton quickly replied with a grin, “What don’t I do out here is a better question.” She is involved with setting up and taking down the stand, ordering product, preparation work and everything in between.
Her greatest enjoyment is the people. “I enjoy the people watching and talking to many different kinds of people,” Burton said, adding she is a real people person so it comes natural for her to talk to people.
Operating a stand isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, according to Burton. Midway through this year’s State Fair, a major refrigerator broke down. “Luckily, I am very organized so we squeezed everything into a smaller refrigerator,” she said. “It comes with its challenges, but we make it work. We have to make do,” she added.
The fair brings long hours for Burton and the Jenos. They are usually at the fair every day by 7 a.m. and ready to serve hot dish by 8 a.m. On weekends, they usually stay open until midnight.
Ole and Lena’s is located across from one of the beer gardens. “It’s the State Fair and people have beer for breakfast,” Burton said. “We’re ready to serve by 8 a.m. There are no rules for State Fair foods,” she said with a snicker on her face.
As for her secret at making the hot dish stay together on the stick, Burton said, “Slow and steady wins the race in terms of dipping the hot dish on a stick,”
With the end of the fair in sight at the time of this interview, Burton said, “Luckily it’s 12 days of fun and then you get a year break.”
The Jenos get help running the stand from their four grandchildren. “I’m hoping my grandsons will take over some day,” she said. “We’ve been blessed to have 12 years so far,” she added.
Besides the State Fair, Ole and Lena’s also took part in about 10 other community celebrations around southern Minnesota, including the Freeborn and Steele fairs.