Land of 10,000 Stories: The real 'Sweet Martha'

10:03 AM, Aug 22, 2011   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - You have never met Mr. Betty Crocker, Julie Green Giant, or uncle Jemima. So on our way to meeting a Minnesota food product icon - we thought we'd start by introducing you to her spouse.

"And of course I like to go by the term Gorgeous Gary," laughs Gary Olson from behind the wheel of a food delivery truck. Four days a week he picks up and delivers food as a volunteer for Catholic Charities.

Then "Gorgeous Gary" goes home to his wife - Sweet Martha.

"A lot of people are surprised there's a real Martha," says Martha Rossini Olson from the dining room of the couple's St. Paul home. "They don't know there's a real Martha."

Even if you have never met the real Sweet Martha, if you've attended the Minnesota State Fair you've probably stood in line for her chocolate chip cookies.

But the most popular food item at the Minnesota State Fair wasn't born in a bakery.  Rather, it grew from a failed business in downtown Minneapolis.

Gary and Martha were newly married in the late 1970s, she working as a teacher and he in sales, when they opened a frozen yogurt shop on Hennepin Avenue and needed a name.

"Magnificent Martha's, Marvelous Martha's - I wanted an alliteration," recalled Gary. Then Martha's brother tossed out the moniker that would hang above the yogurt shop door.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I don't want to be Sweet Martha.' I didn't even want it named after me, but you know I was out-voted.

With a name and a shop, they applied to sell frozen yogurt at the fair - and were promptly rejected.

A year later, on a whim and without a recipe,- they added chocolate chip cookies - and were rejected again. Then a few weeks before the fair, someone cancelled, freeing up last minute space.

Martha remembers answering the phone. "And they said, 'We'd like you to bring your cookies and I'm going, 'Oh of course, you know,' hung up and just went, 'Ahhhhhh! Now what are we going to do?'"

With yogurt out and cookies in, Martha, Gary and their friend and partner Neil O'Leary quickly assembled a recipe and a booth, built of plywood in their backyard.

This year they will mark their 33rd fair.

"It's quite a family gathering," say Brenda O'Leary who joined the partnership after marrying Neil.

"We always say we started when we were like eight," laughs Martha

Two state fair booths - including a million dollar expansion eight years ago - will allow the partners to produce more than ten million cookies during the run of the fair. "It's almost a million a day. It's a hundred thousand an hour," says Gary.

The fair's two Sweet Martha stands grossed nearly $2.4 million dollars at last year's fair, according to state fair records, roughly three times the amount of Fresh French Fries and Mouth Trap Cheese Curds, Sweet Martha's two closest competitors.

Even more Sweet Martha cookies are sold frozen and pre-baked at grocery stores during the rest of the year.

From a handful of family and friends working the booth Sweet Martha's first state fair, the fair-time workforce has grown to more than 400 people.

The yogurt shop quietly died as a money losing proposition, but out of it came an immensely successful business.

"I grew up right on the other side of Como Lake," says Martha, "and you know there's always that, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we had a booth at the fair?'  I think it's so many of Minnesotan's dreams."

Many think it, but Martha's sweet dream came true.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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