Usually, our discussions of the State Fair of Texas’ food focus on what to eat: What will they fry this time? And how do they do it, in 95-degree temperatures and with dozens of people impatiently waiting?
We don’t talk enough about the money behind the State Fair of Texas, and that’s where new A&E show Deep Fried Dynasty shines.
The show premiered on March 8, 2022, with two 30-minute episodes, introducing us to five of the eight families who famously make food at the State Fair of Texas. The show has an Instagrammy quality, where each gut-busting dish is shown dripping in sauce or coated in powdered sugar.
In big, bold text, the creators of Deep Fried Dynasty tell us exactly how much money these concessionaires hope to collect during 24 sweaty days of the State Fair of Texas.
The focus on the funds is reminiscent of Shark Tank, when an entrepreneur presents a bold idea, then talks cash.
For Tammy and Rick Stiffler, their goal is a whopping $2 million in sales across 10 food stands. That’ll mean selling 76,000 fried Oreos alongside other desserts like fried s’mores and fried Snickers. The Stifflers also operate six Newport Concessions booths, which sell nachos, hot dogs and pretzels.
But back to that $2 million. For years, Rick worked full time as a steel mill worker in Midlothian. Tammy was a teacher. They’ve been together since Tammy was 13.
“We’ve never lived off of our fair money,” Tammy Stiffler says. Until now: Once they started operating 10 booths, the money they made from cookies and fried Snickers became their sole income.
It’s so far been lucrative enough that the Stifflers say they’re now building the business for their grandkids.
“We can see that this is going to go on for generations,” Rick says.
It’s already a generational business for Christi Erpillo and Johnna McKee, the sisters whose family has served nachos and funnel cakes at the fair for 52 years. Dynasty watchers meet Erpillo and McKee in the second episode, as McKee is crying into hot oil over $48,000 worth of funnel cake mix she had to throw away because it wasn’t mixing up properly.
Their goal at the 2021 fair: to sell $750,000 worth of food across their five booths.
The show calls them “deep-fried hustlers,” and that’s never felt more true.
Abel Gonzales, the first winner of “best taste” at the Big Tex Choice Awards in 2005, is a staple on the show. He’s looking to collect $300,000 in sales at his two booths.
Gonzales is part of the narrative about how crazy fried food got so popular. “We started seeing exotic fried foods show up all over the country,” Gonzales says, “[and] we were a huge part of that.” His fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich (now without the banana) is a bestseller at his two booths more than 15 years later.
His work at the fair earned him the nickname “fried Jesus.”
It was Gonzales who brought us the puzzling 2009 winner, fried butter. Before the fair even started, he knew it was going to be a hit.
“It’s fat inside of fat,” he says. “I knew it was going to freak people out. … And it doesn’t have to be a good reaction. Your job is to make it good.” And it was.
Gonzales is one of many concessionaires who said the canceled State Fair of Texas in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic almost killed his business.
“We were on the ropes, man,” he says. “We were scratching the bank account, trying to make it work.
“The fair opened [in 2021] and that was a huge relief. It made us feel normal again,” he says.
While all of the concessionaires on Dynasty seem to be bursting with personality, brothers Brent and Juan Reaves tell one of the most compelling stories, about running out of turkey legs during a football game. Food-TV watchers might feel some Restaurant Impossible vibes as the Reaveses shuttle from their barbecue restaurant Smokey John’s to the fair, with coolers full of hot meat.
And it’s easy to root for Cassy Jones, another Dynasty concessionaire with one booth and a decade of experience at the fair. She’s known for her fried collard greens, which people stand in line for. Her sales goal is $200,000.
Jones has been a private chef for professional football players Amari Cooper and Tyler Lockett. She went to culinary school at age 40. The new job was quite a change from the two decades before, when she ran an in-home day care and fostered disabled children as she raised five kids of her own.
Jones was born and raised in Oak Cliff and has been going to the fair since she was a kid. She, like the others, hopes the A&E show brings her new customers.
“I hope the show shows the world that this fair is set up to help people make great memories, get some good food, enjoy those rides and have fun,” she says.
Deep Fried Dynasty originally aired Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on A&E. Episodes 7 and 8 moved to noon on Saturday, April 2, 2022.