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Collaborations have been key to some of the Minnesota State Fair’s most exciting — and under-the-radar — food and drink debuts.

Think: Betty & Earls’ terrific, buttery biscuits all over the LuLu’s Public House menu. Lift Bridge brewing its mini donut beer for the Ball Park Cafe. And beloved Dinkytown diner Al’s Breakfast taking over the griddle in the Hamline Church Dining Hall.

This year’s big collab news: Two small-batch creameries are teaming up with enduring food vendors to electrify the fair’s ice cream offerings. Minnesota Dairy Lab is contributing two flavors to the case at Blue Moon Dine-In Theater, and A to Z Creamery is supplying 5-ounce cups of ice cream to Granny’s Apples & Lemonade.

Both boutique ice cream makers began as one person’s vision and expanded to two, max, in the kitchen. They started during the pandemic, and sales are still largely online only. For operations so new and so small, an event of this scale would likely be out of reach had they not joined forces with fair stalwarts. But collaborating has given these two ice cream businesses an unexpected path into the behemoth that is the State Fair, thanks to a policy that allows vendors to choose whichever distributors and wholesalers they want to supply their products.

It’s a delicious loophole that has enabled a pair of underground, tiny-batch ice creams to go mainstream at this year’s Great Minnesota Get-Together. Here’s a peek at their journeys.

Minnesota Dairy Lab

The ice cream that had been a well-kept secret between local chefs and lucky recipients of weekly specials moved to center stage as Minnesota Dairy Lab debuted at the Blue Moon Dine-In Theater with a coveted spot on the official new foods list: Irish Butter Ice Cream.

Philip Farzanegan is the mastermind behind the buzzy new ice cream, served with brown sugar-cinnamon toast, that’s getting rave reviews from both critics and fairgoers. And although he specializes in dense and intensely flavored small-batch ice cream, Farzanegan didn’t grow up obsessing about sweet treats.

He found himself in Minnesota in search of a sober community. He first came through the Retreat as a guest — “That’s what we call people that come through there,” Farzanegan said of the Wayzata treatment center. “I came via this long-term inpatient place in New Jersey.” At that point, bridges had been burned and relationships strained; there was no going back to Florida, where he grew up. The only option was forward motion.

“It took a lot to get to that place, to admit that,” he said. What was meant to be a yearlong transitional stop turned into a full-time vocation as he worked his way through the program and into a job as the Retreat’s executive chef while living in a sober house in St. Paul.

Cooking wasn’t in his background, but it was in his blood. “My dad is a really, really great cook,” he said. “He’s from Iran, and Persian food and hospitality informs a lot of my approach to cooking.”

In Florida, Farzanegan’s hospitality work was as a banquet server, wait staffer or management. “It wasn’t until I got sober that I considered [working in the kitchen] seriously.” He credits kitchen work at the Retreat as the real start of his culinary journey.

But his ice cream muse came when he managed to get a taste of another local small-batch ice cream producer. The pint unlocked a creative spark that quickly went from “maybe I could” to a mixer bowl filled with cream, eggs and sugar. Farzanegan invested in the same machinery that could be used to make gelato, one where he can control exactly how much air is whipped into the ice cream as it chills. He turned that knob way down.

The result is an ice cream so thick and velvety it has the mouthfeel of sweet velour. Soon he was crafting flavor combinations that could only spring from a savory chef’s creative repository, from butter mochi inside an ube base to kombucha pear sorbet.

A friend connected him with the owners of the fair’s Blue Moon Dine-In Theater, Stephanie and Mike Olson, who have a long history with ice cream. The two worked with Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s before an opportunity came to take over the former Family Tree Cafe building at the fair. It’s been 18 years, but the excitement never fades — nor does the well of ideas for new fair food. “We start thinking about it in September,” said Mike Olson. “The ideas evolve over the winter — some go bye-bye by the spring.”

This year’s inspiration came from the iconic artistic ode to the dairy princesses: butter. They did their butter research and looked overseas; France seemed like a possibility, but ultimately the golden-colored Irish delights won.

“Around this time, we thought, we can’t do this ourselves,” Olson said. Despite their ice cream experience, the Olsons knew that outsourcing the production would be key.

It was a lesson learned in 2011, after the Star Tribune gave Blue Moon’s new sweet corn ice cream four out of four stars and urged fairgoers to try it. Lines started early the next day and didn’t quit.

“We knew we couldn’t mass-produce this thing and this year, we ran across Phil,” said Olson. “He’s a chef-driven ice cream guy. His flavors are flavors — they come out and hit you. He really knows what he’s doing. His ice cream is perfect.”

Minnesota Dairy Lab, which Farzanegan operates with fiancée Jessie Fiene, not only makes the new Irish Butter ice cream, but also that beloved sweet corn ice cream — showcasing the buttery, salty, seasonally fresh harvest in his decadent, rich base.

For those who want to skip the lines, Farzanegan’s flavorful pints are available at a handful of locations across the metro, including Tono Pizzeria + Cheesesteaks and Nina’s Coffee Cafe in St. Paul, and online at

A to Z Creamery

Caramel-like molten bronze plops out of a squeeze bottle into a bowl of not-quite-frozen ice cream the texture of marshmallow fluff. With each portion of ice cream that Zach Vraa transfers from the bowl into a pastel paper cup, strings of the burnt sugar syrup drip from the back of the scoop into the bowl, but the spiced apple ice cream itself is swimming in rich sweetness that Vraa’s mom, Mona, tops with a handful of brown sugar oat crumble.

This is the entire assembly line in the kitchen where A to Z Creamery is preparing for the biggest event in its short time in business, the Minnesota State Fair.

Vraa and his one employee, Lexi Peterson, will take the help of Mona and of Vraa’s mother-in-law, Kathy Balke, when they can get it. Because an operation that normally produces 1,000 pints per week has been turning out 1,000 cups a day to get ready for its fair debut.

A to Z, the Hopkins-based creamery founded and owned by Vraa, is known for hard-to-get, premium-priced pints of one-of-a-kind flavors, advertised only on social media and often sold by lottery.

Emily Hagen has waited in those lines. The granddaughter of Mary “Granny” Wagner of Granny’s Apples & Lemonade, Hagen was looking for a way to bring her family’s 37-year-old Food Building fixture into the digital age. The vendor just joined Instagram, has new branding and now accepts credit card payments.

But it also needed a menu refresh. Granny’s hasn’t added a new item since the early 2000s.

Hagen thought of A to Z, which has leveraged social media to become a viral local food sensation ever since Vraa’s mother gave him an ice cream maker for his birthday — a month before the pandemic began. Vraa began making small batches for friends and family and, as word spread, he attached a $13 price tag and a chance-based ordering system that turned a secret ice cream sale into an Instagram-fueled frenzy.

“I’ve sat in that lottery and missed out on flavors, or the website crashed when I really wanted one,” Hagen said.

She approached Vraa about taking his small-batch business to a mega audience, and it didn’t take much convincing.

“It’s just something that I feel like every Minnesotan dreams about, and when you think about it, you never think it’s going to be a reality,” Vraa said.

But then came the reality of actually having to make enough ice cream to serve the hundreds of thousands of potential guests that come through the fair each day.

“For outsiders, it’s hard to fathom how much we’re actually making,” Vraa said. He crafts everything, from the base to the mix-ins, from scratch. Only five days into prepping, he had already gone through 30 gallons of caramel.

To do it, he has had to put his weekly sales on hold. Typically, Vraa comes up with one flavor per week, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. He never repeats his wildly inventive flavors, so teaming up to produce 12 days’ worth of a single flavor is already changing the way he does business.

He doesn’t know what to expect when the fair exposure trickles back down to his regular weekly business. A former salesperson for a factory automation company who quit his day job a year ago, “I got to see how food was made in a big factory setting,” he said. It was “interesting,” but not something he wants for his micro-creamery.

“Honestly, I like the fact that we hand-pack everything,” he said. “We know what’s going into it instead of giving some third party our recipe. I feel if you try and grow too fast and bring in machinery that deposits everything, we just become another big chain ice cream shop.”

Keeping A to Z DIY “makes it feel really special,” he said.

The pairing of a longtime state fair food vendor and a pandemic-era creamery without a storefront is an unusual marriage, but a “perfect” one, Hagen said. She is hoping to “bring some fresh life into what has been pretty much standard operation for 37 years,” she said.

“I guess, from my end,” said Vraa, “opposites attract.”

Granny’s is offering him an invaluable learning experience, he said. “They can show me the ropes about how the State Fair works, how business works. They can come to me for something new, unique, creative. So we just help each other out.”

By Amalia