“Is that it?” That was Nicole Sternes’ first query when her husband advised her earlier this yr of his thought for an entry within the Huge Tex Selection Awards on the State Honest of Texas.
“‘Is that it?’ Sure! That is the one which’s going to win,” Chris Easter advised her. “I assure you it’s going to win. It’s like my entire life wrapped in a single dessert.”
The dish was a honey bun dipped in funnel cake batter, deep fried, injected with caramel, smothered with peanut butter and lined in sweet. Easter thought the dessert appeared like an island, with the peanut butter mimicking the sand. “So, then I put some Reese’s Items on it for individuals and put an umbrella over it.”
A candy, deep-fried sandy seaside. Paradise. Therefore the title, Peanut Butter Paradise.
Easter was proper. It was a winner. And oddly sufficient, it was based mostly on a preferred jail deal with.
Sternes, 46, and Easter, 45, personal Southside Steaks & Cakes on Al Liscomb Method in South Dallas, which serves cheesesteaks, wings and funnel muffins. They met of their early 20s at a membership in Dallas and dated a couple of years earlier than marrying. Their son works on the restaurant, too, making it a real household enterprise.
Sternes, from West Dallas, graduated from South Oak Cliff Excessive College, then the College of Oklahoma. Proudly owning a restaurant wasn’t the couple’s preliminary plan. “We got here into the restaurant enterprise by the use of our nonprofit Opportunities Knock, the place we do an after-school feeding program,” Sternes says. “Our first staff had been at-risk youth via the Texas Workforce Fee and folks from the neighborhood.”
Over time, they made the house a full-service restaurant. Sternes labored on the Dallas Housing Authority however left to deal with rising their enterprise.
Southside Steaks & Desserts is simply steps from the fairgrounds. From the restaurant’s entrance door, you’ll be able to see the massive Ferris wheel on the horizon like a never-setting mechanical solar.
Easter would sit exterior his restaurant on a chair, have a look at the honest and dream about being part of it. The couple utilized to be a vendor three years in a row however they had been turned down every time. The appliance course of is detailed, because the honest desires to ensure concessionaires are as much as the duty of feeding some 2 million individuals for twenty-four days straight.
With some fine-tuning of their utility, the fourth try lastly received them a shot in 2021 at what generally is a profitable, however troublesome, spot.
That first season, Easter says, they only tried to maintain their legs underneath them and centered on studying the enterprise for the long term. They had been advised a very powerful factor is to by no means run out of meals. Whereas managing their stand on the honest, Easter would additionally run again to the restaurant to take part in an internet entrepreneurial mentoring program via Goldman Sachs.
After the honest, enterprise on the restaurant doubled, Sternes says, partially as a result of extra individuals knew about them from the honest.
With one yr underneath their belts, in 2022 Sternes and Easter had been eligible to enter the Huge Tex Selection Awards, arguably the most important prize for fried honest meals within the nation. Successful a type of three awards — for greatest style both savory or candy, or most artistic — and even being a High 10 finalist is large. The Huge Tex Selection Award finalists have their very own map accessible for fairgoers on the lookout for the perfect new meals to attempt. It is the Michelin Information of deep-fried meals.
“In case you are on the Huge Tex Selection Awards map, then your numbers will simply go up by as a lot as 100%,” says Brent Reaves, whose father, “Smokey” John Reaves, began working on the honest in 1978, solely the second African American concessionaire on the time. Brent and his brother Juan have operated the concession collectively since their father’s dying in 2010.
Reaves attributes a part of distributors’ success to environment friendly operations, however being on the map immediately boosts the underside line.
“Final yr, our Crispy Loopy Corn was a finalist, and we had been on the map,” he says. “The response we obtained was the response of a successful merchandise. Between the map and the State Honest’s wonderful PR and advertising and marketing group, we ended 2021 with, for us, phenomenal numbers.”
Being on the map, Reaves says, is a “life-changing” distinction. However getting there may be not straightforward. Dreaming up a singular dish after which serving it rapidly and effectively is not any small process, as illustrated in an A&E collection, Deep Fried Dynasty, which adopted a number of concessionaires eventually yr’s honest. The present highlighted the mishaps (damaged or lacking tools), challenges (staff) and uncontrollable components (rain). Some concessionaires don’t go away the fairgrounds throughout the honest and sleep in trailers at evening in an adjoining lot.
Fairgoers don’t see that. They simply wish to know, “What is going to they fry subsequent?”
Easter received his thought for Peanut Butter Paradise from a former buyer and part-time worker who helped with their nonprofit on the restaurant. The person had advised Easter that he had been incarcerated for 35 years for a homicide he didn’t commit.
“He advised me the one time he received peace was to return in his cell and take a honey bun and unfold peanut butter on it. It will remind him of the free world,” Easter says.
Honey buns topped with peanut butter are a preferred jail meals. They’re typically offered in commissaries and have even made the listing of ultimate meal requests for these on dying row, as within the case of a North Carolina man convicted of murdering six individuals. One other prisoner, Aaron Hernandez, a former NFL participant who died by suicide in jail, reportedly ate 20 honey buns in a single evening behind bars.
Prison Legal News, a human rights protection heart, stories that buns are typically used as foreign money in jail: “Virginia prisoner George Alec Robinson paid his public defenders in honey buns after they spared him from a dying sentence. He stated, ‘That is all on the earth I can provide you guys,’ legal professional James C. Clark advised the Washington Publish.”
Easter has his personal historical past with honey buns in South Dallas. Regardless of rising up within the space, his mom had by no means been to the honest earlier than final yr. On the uncommon events Easter was in a position to go when he was younger, he says they could not afford the fried treats. His household by no means ate out at eating places.
“We’d eat on the nook retailer, and the nook retailer solely,” he says. Honey buns had been considered one of his favourite store-bought splurges.
In August, six judges gathered on the fairgrounds to style every of the Huge Tex Selection Awards finalists in each the candy and savory classes. Easter paid cautious consideration to timing — even how lengthy the judges had been chatting between bites — to make sure the honey bun was nonetheless heat after they tried it. Whereas ready for the judges’ last selections, Sternes received nervous.
“He known as me through the contest and stated, ‘The place are you?’ I used to be within the automobile as a result of I used to be making an attempt to wish,” Sternes says. “He got here and located me and pulled me out and stated, ‘You bought this! Now come on and cease making my workers nervous.’”
Peanut Butter Paradise went up towards a discipline of 9 different desserts by distributors who’ve been doing this for a very long time, for generations in some circumstances. Of their rookie season within the competitors, they received the Huge Tex Selection Award for Greatest Style – Candy.
For months, Easter advised Sternes and their son they had been going to win. “He spoke it into being,” Sternes says.
Since then, individuals drop by their restaurant simply to say congratulations and, “I see you on the market.”
“Entering into the honest was a win for our group,” Sternes says.
The 277 acres that make up the fairgrounds has a troubled previous with South Dallas. In 1969, properties and companies of the African-American group had been bulldozed to make approach for big parking tons so white fairgoers would really feel extra at peace rolling into the honest, which is in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
Till 1961, the honest had Negro Achievement Day, a disingenuous label for the sooner or later of the yr that African People might attend the honest. In 1955, NAACP Youth Council Dallas adviser Juanita Craft organized a picket line on the entrance gates with indicators that learn, “Right this moment is negro appeasement day on the honest, keep out.”
“Getting into the fair was a win for our community.” – Nicole Sternes
In newer many years, the honest, which operates as a nonprofit, has labored to take a position cash into the economically depressed space of South Dallas by the use of jobs, grants for native initiatives and scholarships to college students at close by excessive colleges. In 2022 alone, 23 organizations within the space obtained $148,000 in grants. Since 1992, greater than 3,000 college students attending six excessive colleges surrounding Honest Park have obtained $16.1 million in scholarships.
The honest additionally created the Juanita Craft Humanitarian Award to honor the chief’s legacy of activism in the neighborhood, recognizing her “essential function in integrating the State Honest of Texas amongst different universities, eating places and theatres round Dallas.”
Nonetheless, Sternes and Easter symbolize the closest restaurant to ever make it into the honest. And through their rookie season competing within the Bix Tex Selection Awards, they made it to the very prime, with a nod to their roots and the assistance of an individual of their neighborhood.
“The wonder is that Southside Steaks & Desserts is representing the group,” Reaves says. “I’m proud to see that illustration. I’m additionally completely satisfied to see that the honest gave somebody in the neighborhood a possibility to indicate their presents. This couple with their enterprise is exhibiting the wonder that’s inside South Dallas. Their excellence will seize the eye of a market that usually might not give them an opportunity. Now, being on the prime, they can’t be ignored.”
With simply two weeks earlier than opening day, Sternes and Easter had been prepping for a busy season.
“My home appears to be like like a honey bun manufacturing facility,” Sternes says as Easter pulled out his cellphone to indicate a photograph of a mountain of stacked white containers he began accumulating this summer time. Bear in mind rule No. 1: By no means run out of meals.
“I believe it’s going to work itself out,” Easter says of getting sufficient honey buns. “I’ve been in a position to speak to a few suppliers and get pallets at a time, weekly. I’m considering if I can get 2,500 each 4 days, I ought to hit the mark.”
They closed their restaurant in late September to deal with the honest, and the house will grow to be a short lived honey bun holding facility. They needed to fully re-create a kitchen on the honest; final yr after they walked up they had been surprised on the vacancy. Even the flooring needed to be introduced in, in addition to all of the tools.
Their staff, to whom they attribute a big a part of their success, all head to the honest to work the lengthy 10- and 12-hour days — as much as 79 hours every week — and that is simply when the gates are open. There’s additionally prep and cleanup.
Melanie Linnear is the senior vice chairman of concessions on the honest and has labored intently with Sternes and Easter over the previous yr to ensure they’re profitable.
“Chris and Nicole have deep roots within the southern Dallas group. Everybody calls him ‘Scoota,’” says Linnear, whose sister attended college with Sternes. “Their company known as ‘SouthSide the Realest.’ Chris says it’s ‘straight (actual) from the center,’ and he’s all about protecting it actual with the individuals in the neighborhood.”
Sternes and Easter hosted a tasting for Linnear and her group at their restaurant earlier this yr. Linnear remembers a homeless man who got here in asking to select up trash across the car parking zone to earn cash for meals.
“He didn’t have to select up the trash as a result of Chris made positive he was supplied with meals to eat, and Nicole instructed her group to offer water to take with him when he left. To me, that was protecting it actual. In that second, I had made up my thoughts to ebook them for the 2021 honest, and the remaining is historical past,” Linnear says.
She linked them with Tim Williams, the COO of Williams Rooster and a former vendor on the honest. He and a number of other different distributors, amongst them the Reaves brothers, acted as mentors that first yr.
“They at all times plan their work and work their plan whereas looking forward to what’s subsequent of their meals and beverage enterprise,” Linnear says of Easter and Sternes. “The Huge Tex Selection Awards was their subsequent step.”
When requested about the place they see themselves in 10 years, the couple pauses and appears at each other, then Easter asks his spouse if she desires to go first. Along with persevering with their run on the honest, they wish to be mentors for different eating places of their neighborhood, significantly alongside Al Lipscomb Method, to assist elevate others up. In addition they wish to broaden their concessionaire enterprise by attending different occasions.
As for the person who gave Easter the thought for Peanut Butter Paradise, they misplaced monitor of him through the pandemic when the restaurant was closed. They assume he moved away however hope he reappears quickly. “We maintain hoping he sees the information and exhibits again up so we are able to inform him that we received,” Sternes says.