For about seven years in the ’90s, we’d rent an RV and fill it up with a bunch of dudes in tie-dye, eat a fistful of acid, let it kick in, and throw ourselves at the State Fair of Texas. We’re all Deadheads, so it just made sense. We called it the Altered State Fair. We’d go on Texas-OU weekend, on the most crowded day of the fair. We’d go to the goat judging contest just to root for the second-place goat. You know the blue room in Fair Park? The acoustics will melt your face off. That’s less important than the fried Frito pie, but that’s where we realized that we love the fair and wanted to get inside it somehow.
I’m originally from New York City, so I had no experience with something like the State Fair. I came here to go to SMU, and I lived in Dallas for almost 20 years before going to my first. I just fell in love with it. They started doing the fried food contests about three years before we came on the scene. And one year, fried butter won. Abel Gonzales, you know, all the power to him. He figured out the PR and that’s a serious thing. And it became a big deal. But I was just personally offended and pissed off that fried butter would get so much national attention and make that guy so much money.
I just kept asking myself, What fair staple, what regular fair food has not been deep-fried? Eventually it came to me: Frito pie. Up North, they call it a walking taco. They take a bag, they dump the chili and cheese in it, and they walk around. So in July 2010, I’m in a neighbor’s pool, and I tell him about my idea. His name was Richard Roznowski, and he just said, “Oh, we’re doing this. We’ve got to.”
It’s the Frito Scoop, one of the big ones. You take a spoonful of chili and cheese and pre-mix it. You put it in the Scoop. You put another Scoop on top of it, you dip it in tempura batter, and you deep-fry it. It’s a two-bite popper. And it was delicious. But there was a problem. The only way you can get into the contest is to actually be a vendor at the fair. The waiting list was something like 20 years just to get a booth. But Richard had a friend named Jeff Lovell, and Jeff Lovell was good friends with the Bert family. In 1927, Sammy Bert invented the shaved ice machine. That family has owned seven booths at the fair since the dawn of history.
So Jeff calls up Vera Bert, the matriarch of the family, and she arranged for us to make a batch for the entire Bert clan at Bert Central, which is down around Jim Miller and I-30. They loved it. Vera came up with the name. I wanted to call it Fried Frito Pie. She said, “No, you gotta put ‘Texas.’ ” She knew the crowd. And the Texas Fried Frito Pie was born.
At first, the judges decide finalists by how you describe your item. So I wrote up a flowery bit about “the magnificent taste of chili,” telling them to “git yerself sum,” and that got us into the make-a-batch round.
There was no history of a third party coming in and providing a product for a vendor to put in the fried food contest. So we had to be hush-hush about that. The Berts entered the product into the contest. And at first, the judges decide finalists by how you describe your item. So I wrote up a flowery bit about “the magnificent taste of chili,” telling them to “git yerself sum,” and that bullshit got us into the make-a-batch round.
So we go to the Embarcadero a couple of weeks later to make it for the judges. There’s a Best Taste and a Most Creative. And the Most Creative winner that year was fried beer, which was the most horrible, disgusting thing you could ever imagine. It was a pretzel ravioli with hot Shiner Bock in it. So we’re thinking our chances weren’t too good when it came time for Brad Sham to announce the Best Taste.
“And the winner of the best tasting new fried food for the 2010 State Fair of Texas is … Texas Fried Frito Pie!”
We all had an orgasm. We just rushed the stage and grabbed the trophy. I grabbed the mic and got Vera up there to accept it. And at that point, that’s when a lot of people were like, “What is that guy doing up there?” It really set the old-boy network on its ears. They wanted Vera to go up there and meekly take the microphone and mumble a little something. No way. We went up there and jumped up and down. I called my father crying on the phone.
So Tracy Tyler, he was our marketing guy. And he’s sitting in the back of the truck later, doing the math. Think about it: about 3.4 million people go to the fair every year, and if 10 percent of them want to try the best tasting new fried fair food, there’s five pieces per serving—well, that’s upwards of 1.7 million pieces.
Our deal with the Berts was we would have it delivered. We’d have a pass so we could get in anytime, and we would make sure there was product in their trailer. I just went, “Oh, God.” We had nothing lined up. No manufacturing, no supplies, no refrigerated truck. We literally googled “food manufacturing.” We knew nothing. I’m in the pet supply business. We found a tortilla factory in Duncanville that would make the chips, but they’re not licensed to handle meat. And this was less than a month before the fair.
But a friend of Vera’s who works for 7-Eleven knew the guy at Prime Deli, an outfit up in Lewisville that assembles all of their breakfast sandwiches. We pitched them, and they agreed to make the chip and chili portion.
We rented a truck and we’d drive it up to Lewisville, load it, take it down to the fair. Prime Deli had about 20 ladies standing in a line, assembling the things. We would deliver bags of batter along with the food, and the carnies would mix the batter there and then dip the Frito pie and put it in the fryer. Carnies hate that because they want to just throw it in the fryer, no prep or anything. It was messy, and there were a lot of long lines. On the first day, they got killed. Absolutely killed. I walked into the fair at 10 a.m., and there were literally 300 people lined up in front of every booth that was selling the stuff. We had guys throwing down their ladles. I’ve never seen lines like that for food before.
We had a 24/7 pass, so we could go after hours. There were a couple of nights we’d run some stuff down there in the pickup. Suffice it to say we’d had a few, and we were driving up and down the midway in my pickup truck at 3 in the morning. That’s really all we wanted all along, to go inside. We really were then a part of the fair.
We did the math later. The fair did $37 million that year, and we accounted for almost 3 percent of the gross revenue, just that one product. We got nowhere close to that amount, but it made the Berts half a million dollars.
But we got the experience. Richard told me about the goat judging contest, and we just had to own that. Back in the Altered State Fair, I was very fascinated by the goats. The second-place goat kind of became our mascot. We put up $1,500 to sponsor it, and it was in the same blue room that we went to all those years ago.
It was all a great time. It was one of the most exciting things to happen to me. And the fair changed the rules. There’s now what we call the Mike Thomas rule, where vendors can use third-party guys to help develop the product, but those third-party guys are not allowed to be anywhere near the contest or the fair, because afterward you get all this TV. We did national TV interviews, we did international TV interviews. We took a goat on Channel 8’s morning show, and it shat everywhere.
We were never supposed to get there. But you know what? That’s why you should always root for the second-place goat.
As told to Matt Goodman