For nearly a half-century, the Rupena’s Pavilion has been a fixture at the Wisconsin State Fair.
Located on the west side of Central Mall at the intersection of Central Avenue and Center Street, the location has been a meeting place for thousands of fair-goers, many of whom return year after year for Fair food favorites like stuffing balls, State Fair roasted chicken and their famous Hungarian sandwich slathered in super secret sour cream.
But, as the longtime West Allis grocer prepares for its 49th State Fair season, Maria Rupena Karczewski, president of Rupena’s Fine Foods, has announced that 2021 will mark the family-operated grocery store’s final hurrah at the Fair.
“I love the Fair,” says Karczewski, who has operated the pavilion for the last 25 years. “It takes months of planning to prepare for it every year, but it has always felt exciting. Every year, we try to do something new. We compete in the Sporkies, and we welcome new faces in our space. But, after 49 years, it’s time.”
Passing the torch
Once the festivities are over, Karczewski says, she’ll be turning their longtime space over to Paul Hackbarth, owner of Hackbarth Hospitality Group and operator of Camp Bar, Campsite 131, Deer Camp and events venues including The Atrium, Birch and Vista.
It’s a landmark decision, as State Fair properties very seldom change hands. In Rupena’s case, the 6,000+ square foot pavilion (which started as little more than a yellow tent in 1972), has been operated by two generations of the Rupena family.
But Karczewski says it wasn’t a decision she took lightly.
“We’ve been approached many times over the years by people who’ve wanted to buy our pavilion,” she says. “And we’ve been approached by people who made higher offers. But this isn’t about money, and none of the offers ever felt right.”
But she says things changed when she was introduced to Hackbarth by a mutual friend about two years ago.
“I remember meeting him,” she says, “And thinking that he reminded me of a little brother. I listened to his plans, and something between us really clicked. I realized that he was the right fit to take over our space.”
Hackbarth nods in agreement.
“When Maria and I talked, we found we really had the same goals,” he says. “In large part it’s about creating a family friendly experience with a reputable brand behind it.
"We established all of our neighborhood Camp Bars to bring the Northwoods experience to people where they were. Now I’m looking forward to bringing that experience to the other places where people go. That includes places like the State Fair.”
Hackbarth says that they’ll use the full complement of Camp Bar assets, combined with the technology and entertainment aspects of Sound by Design, to create a classic Wisconsin Northwoods experience right at the Fair.
In addition to the space itself, guests can expect Camp Bar Shuttle service to provide safe transportation both to and from the Fair, as well as a Pavilion that will get year-round use in the form of corporate functions, wedding receptions and other Camp-themed experiences.
“The State Fair was always an annual tradition in my family,” says Hackbarth. “And Rupena’s was my family’s long-time choice for catering events. I never imagined that, decades later, those two things would connect, and I’d have a space at the Fair. But we’re really excited to see it all come together.”
“It’s the best decision we could have possibly made,” says Karczewski. “I love the thought that he has little ones who will grow up like my kids did with fond memories of the fair. And I love the fact that I can visit the fair again, come to our booth, and it will still feel like home to me.”
“Rupena's is not retiring. We’re refiring,” says Karczewski. “We’re using this as an opportunity to focus all the energy we spent on the State Fair to concentrate on remodeling the grocery store and creating more great Rupena’s experiences year round.
“People have always visited the Rupena’s space at the State Fair because it’s fun and exciting,” she adds. “And that excitement won’t stop. We’re just redirecting it back to our business. You’ll be seeing a lot of exciting new things at our store in the coming months. And they’re things that I can’t wait to share.”
For now, Karczewski says she’s looking forward to greeting thousands of friends – old and new – at the Fair and watching them take joy from Rupena’s menu of seasoned ribeye steak, pulled pork, ranch chicken wraps, roasted chicken and stuffing balls.
“The reason why Rupena’s has been so successful at the Fair is because of the people who came out and supported everything that we were doing,” she says. “So I’m really grateful for all the years people have supported me, my parents and my grandparents.”
“Come on out and see us,” she says with a bittersweet smile, “Get your favorite foods and celebrate the last 49 years and the new beginnings we’re creating!”
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.