What’s red and white and secret all over? The Peg, the State Fair’s only full-service restaurant. Hidden in plain sight behind the Ag-Hort building, The Peg isn’t secret in that it’s hard to find—the big red-and-white signs announce it loud and clear, as do the myriad colorful murals and the 20-foot-high bays that contain it—but in that, despite how hard it is to miss, people still don’t seem to understand.
Let’s start with understanding the name. It comes from a blue-collar joint of days gone by just off of 280 called the Square Peg, which was famous for old-school Minnesota comfort foods, like roast pork and roast beef served with mashed potatoes and bread and plenty of brown gravy made from the drippings. The Square Peg was run by Greg Auge (pronounced oh-zhay), who, in 1982, opened its sister shop, The Peg, at the fair with his former Howard Johnson coworker Tim Carlson.
As I’m sitting in a booth at The Peg with Tim Carlson and Greg’s son, Brett Auge, more secrets spill out. Those murals? Greg Auge was an old-school do-gooder with a soft spot for people down on their luck and hired a homeless artist living at the Dorothy Day Center to paint them. The younger Auge isn’t too different. His favorite part of the fair is when the crowd from Living Well Disability Services comes in to eat. He buys their 45 tickets and helps every wheelchair user find a table, then piles their plates high with whatever they want. Typically, they, and everybody, want one of the Peg top four: The Peg muffin (breakfast sandwich with sausage, tomato, egg, and cheese), the famous Peg burger (double patties, spicy sauce), loaded fries with barbecue pork, or the Boss Hog barbecue sandwich.
“Sweet Martha’s opened around the same time as us,” says Carlson. “But we’re not big like what she’s got now; we just try to keep comfort food and atmosphere like the old times.”
In fact, if you want to see The Peg at its busiest, you’ll need to get there at 7 am. That’s when all the vendors and anyone else living on-site at the fair pop in for breakfast. Even Sweet Martha herself comes in most days and eats in a booth with her team.
“We’ll serve 400 to 500 people a morning,” says Brett Auge. “Just plain food, good food, eggs, muffins, biscuits. All the one-hit wonders we’ve seen come through the fair, but we’re still standing.”
And while the food is great, people don’t necessarily come for the food.
“People tell us, ‘I come for the hugs.’ We had a great-grandmother, grandmother, granddaughter working here all at the same time; we’re real proud of that,” says Auge of the staff, which is mainly his and Carlson’s relatives and friends. “We’re the faces the old-timers know.”
The Peg also offers two more rarities at the fair: available seating and affordable prices.
“Seating is a premium out here, and that’s one thing we provide,” says Carlson. “And we don’t want to price-gouge people just because it’s the fair. I don’t want to hear people walking by saying, ‘That’s too expensive.’ If we can’t do a volume business, how can we feel good about ourselves? It’s not like there aren’t enough customers walking by.”
Sitting with Auge and Carlson, a man in an “I [heart] lefse” T-shirt limps in and grabs a seat at the counter.
“My knee hurts,” he announces.
“Welcome to getting old,” says Auge. “You want coffee?”
All over the fair, newbies stampede for the new spots offering the new foods, but up here, the wise old-timers eat at the one place left at the fair that understands value, constancy, and why it matters that a restaurant creates space for you to take a load off your creaking knees.