Wednesday, November 30, 2022 Nov 30, 2022
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Food & Drink

Meet the Rare Dallas Restaurants That Have Their Own Booths at the State Fair of Texas

For these four local restaurateurs, running a food concession booth at the State Fair of Texas has more benefits that go beyond a big payday.
By Kristina Rowe |
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Brent Reaves shakes powdered sugar—the standard (and necessary) finishing touch for Big Tex Choice Awards hopefuls—on the Fried Jell-O just before presenting it to the judges in 2016.

When the State Fair of Texas opens its gates on Friday, Jesus Carmona will be a few feet from Big Tex Circle with a spread of food from his restaurants in Oak Cliff and West Dallas.

Carmona is one of seven new food concessionaires at the fair this year, a feat that isn’t easily attainable. The fair usually receives more than 100 applications, and the few who are chosen will get the chance to build, in essence, a complete restaurant that will only be open for 24 days. 

Traditional concessions businesses tend to see big money in exchange for intense effort. But other benefits of being at the fair appeal to Dallas restaurant owners like Carmona, which makes them eager to compete for such limited openings and extreme expectations.

“I’m the luckiest person, I’m telling you,” Carmona says. 

At Chimichurri, an Argentinian restaurant in the Bishop Arts District, Carmona sells more than 2,000 empanadas a week. Each one is made by hand. In his newly-built kitchen at Fair Park, his staff will be making and selling those same handmade empanadas. To make that happen, he’s willing to trade his usual 14-hour days for even longer ones—he says he’ll be at the fair 24/7.

Carmona will start each day at Milagro and prep for hours before the park opens. While he works at the fair, the restaurateur says he’s comfortable leaving his two restaurants in the hands of his managers and employees. “They’re not my employees, they’re like my family,” Carmona says. “They care.”

Generating more income for his family and his employees was one of his motivations for taking on the challenge, Carmona says—some of his employees are single mothers who work and take care of their kids.

Carmona, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 17, says many of his customers knew that his food was destined to be offered at the fair. In 2018, Guy Fieri timed a visit to Dallas for a State Fair of Texas event. He found time to tape episodes for his Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” at four local restaurants. The restaurant Carmona owned at the time, Mariachi Tacos on Singleton Boulevard, was one of them.

“Even before I had restaurants, I always wanted to be at the fair,” Carmona says. 

He can’t wait to bring mole fries, a burrito Texano, campeona tacos inspired by street vendors in Puebla, Mexico, and handmade empanadas to the ever-expanding menu of fair food.

Menu development is a key element for the fair committee when it considers new applicants. Brandon Hays, a co-founder of This and That Hospitality—the parent company of Ferris Wheeler’s Backyard and BBQ—says fair organizers work with applicants to create unique food items rather than “doubling up on something that’s already there.”

Ferris Wheeler’s is returning to the fair for its second year on the Fun Way. They’ll be offering gobble balls (breaded and deep-fried smoked turkey nuggets), pork belly burnt ends on a stick, funnel cake fries, brisket Mac and cheese, and waffle fry nachos. 

Phillip Schanbaum, another This and That Hospitality co-founder, says he’s a die-hard State Fair of Texas fan, and being able to serve food within its gates has been a huge goal. 

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Kristina Rowe

“[I’ve] been going for 25 years,” Schanbaum says. “One of our close friends and their family have been part of the state fair for decades. They were kind enough to help us become a part of it.”

The restaurant group undertook a hiring blitz in August to help get them ready for this year’s fair season. The “State Ferris of Wheeler’s” pop-up opened on September 22 at its Design District location and will operate Wednesdays through Saturdays through October 28. Carnival games, themed cocktails, carnival entertainers, photo opportunities, and more are planned throughout the duration of the event.

The pop-up draws customers to their restaurant and also to their booth at the fair. “We see a ton of support from our regulars,” Schanbaum says. “It’s always great to see their faces [at the fair].”

For Juan and Brent Reaves, owners of Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que and Home Cooking, the biggest bonus that comes from being at the fair is the opportunity to grow their family’s legacy. Their parents first offered concessions at the fair in 1978, and the brothers took over the family’s two booths in 1999. They’re now the longest-standing Black-owned vendor at the State Fair of Texas. 

“It’s funny because you talk about our earlier days at the fair and our days now at the fair,” Juan says. “Back then it was you hang out, you sell a few turkey legs, and it worked.” 

Now Brent handles the restaurant and catering and Juan handles the fair. They both wind up working 90 to 95 hours a week over at least 24 days. Their fair operations employ 125 people in addition to 28 full- and part-time employees at the restaurant and about 40 in their catering operation. 

Co-Owners Brent and Juan Reaves
The Reaves’ big red chicken bread (a fried chicken wing sitting on a doughnut) is the winner of a State Fair of Texas Big Tex Choice Award last year. Kelsey Foster Wilson

“We are nowhere near the company we were,” Brent said. “We’ve expanded our menu so much. We’ve taken such a culinary approach at the fair and created so much work for ourselves.” 

Those include handmade tamales and barbacoa at their Ruth’s Tamales booths, desserts like Deep Fried Reeses, and this year’s Big Tex Choice Awards finalist, The Ultimate Brookie Monster. (That’s a deep-fried mix of chocolate cookie, Oreos, marshmallows, and brownie batter.) Still, they can never take their focus off of turkey legs.

For their six booths at the fair this year, the brothers have set up three commercial-sized smokers, the most they’ve ever had, Juan says. Because it takes two hours to cook a turkey leg, that still won’t be enough to keep up with demand. On busy days—Texas-OU, Friday nights, and the last weekend of the fair—they’ll also be smoking turkey legs at the restaurant and a driver will shuttle them to Fair Park. 

Drivers, booth managers, grill and fry cooks, and more will find their way into the Reaves family business through a stint at the State Fair of Texas. It wasn’t by design, the brothers say, but their catering manager, assistant general manager to the restaurant, kitchen manager, and the head of people and culture all worked at the fair before being hired on at the restaurant. 

Those employees didn’t start in management positions, but they worked their way up and are now part of the heart of the company.

For years, the income Smokey John’s brought in was more than half of the company’s annual revenue. The duo has worked hard to increase all their lines of business so that fair income represents a smaller percentage of the total even as sales at the fair increase each year. Plans are in the works for even more growth for the business.

After tying for third place in the recent H-E-B Quest for Texas Best competition, they have the opportunity to sell their barbecue rub in H-E-B stores and will receive marketing and mentoring support from the grocery chain. For the restaurant, plans include a second location and possibly making Smokey John’s available as a franchise. Their turn on “Deep Fried Dynasty” and other recent television appearances have led to offers to start their own show, and they say they’re entertaining the idea.

Another restaurant-owning family of fair vendors has already manifested some of their big plans, and more are on the way. For three years, Nicole Sternes and Chris Easter unsuccessfully applied for a vendor spot. Last year, they got a “yes” from the fair to open Texas Cheesesteaks in Cotton Bowl Plaza. Their restaurant, Southside Steaks and Cakes, is just blocks from the fair in South Dallas, and they’ve been selling Texas-style cheesesteaks, chicken wings, and funnel cakes in the neighborhood for more than seven years. 

The last two years, however, have been different. They closed their restaurant for remodeling during the run of the fair last year and reopened with a refreshed interior this February. Since then, business has boomed.

“We have so much traffic through the front door,” Sternes says. “I’ve been in awe, just because I see how hard my husband works in his field. He’s here from eight in the morning till nine at night six days a week.”

They’ve closed the restaurant until November 7 because it’s currently serving as a much-needed storage space for honey buns. Their first-time entry into the Big Tex Choice Awards was a winner in the “Best Taste – Sweet” category. The Peanut Butter Paradise starts with a deep-fried honey bun.

It’s rare for a first-time entrant to win one of those titles. The couple views the win and the publicity as yet another platform from which to share their story and their neighborhood restaurant business. 

After winning the fair food contest, Easter recalled to NBC DFW about a time when he was a child and his family couldn’t afford to go to the fair. He’d settled for eating a honey bun on his front porch, looking longingly at the Texas Star Ferris Wheel and dreaming of going in someday. 

“It really means something,” Sternes says. “This is for all people who have been through something, weren’t able to do something…didn’t have the opportunity.”

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