Food News

Honey Bun Dreams: A South Dallas Family Takes the Fair's Top Prize

The award-winning creation, Peanut Butter Paradise.
The award-winning creation, Peanut Butter Paradise. Kathy Tran
“Is that it?” That was Nicole Sternes’ first question when her husband told her earlier this year of his idea for an entry in the Big Tex Choice Awards at the State Fair of Texas.

“‘Is that it?’ Yes! This is the one that’s going to win,” Chris Easter told her. “I guarantee you it’s going to win. It’s like my whole life wrapped in one dessert.”

The dish was a honey bun dipped in funnel cake batter, deep fried, injected with caramel, smothered with peanut butter and covered in candy. Easter thought the dessert looked like an island, with the peanut butter mimicking the sand. “So, then I put some Reese’s Pieces on it for people and put an umbrella over it.”

A sweet, deep-fried sandy beach. Paradise. Hence the name, Peanut Butter Paradise.

Easter was right. It was a winner. And oddly enough, it was based on a popular prison treat.

Sternes, 45, and Easter, 46, own Southside Steaks & Cakes on Al Lipscomb Way in South Dallas, which serves cheesesteaks, wings and funnel cakes. They met in their early 20s at a club in Dallas and dated a few years before marrying. Their son works at the restaurant, too, making it a true family business.

Sternes, from West Dallas, graduated from South Oak Cliff High School, then the University of Oklahoma. Owning a restaurant wasn't the couple's initial plan. "We came into the restaurant business by way of our nonprofit Opportunities Knock, where we do an after-school feeding program," Sternes says. "Our first employees were at-risk youth through the Texas Workforce Commission and people from the neighborhood."

Over time, they made the space a full-service restaurant. Sternes worked at the Dallas Housing Authority but left to focus on growing their business.

Southside Steaks & Cakes is just steps from the fairgrounds. From the restaurant’s front door, you can see the large Ferris wheel on the horizon like a never-setting mechanical sun.

Easter would sit outside his restaurant on a chair, look at the fair and dream about being a part of it. The couple applied to be a vendor three years in a row but they were turned down each time. The application process is detailed, as the fair wants to make sure concessionaires are up to the task of feeding some 2 million people for 24 days straight.

With some fine-tuning of their application, the fourth attempt finally got them a shot in 2021 at what can be a lucrative, but difficult, spot.

That first season, Easter says, they just tried to keep their legs under them and focused on learning the business for the long run. They were told the most important thing is to never run out of food. While managing their stand at the fair, Easter would also run back to the restaurant to participate in an online entrepreneurial mentoring program through Goldman Sachs.

After the fair, business at the restaurant doubled, Sternes says, in part because more people knew about them from the fair.

With one year under their belts, in 2022 Sternes and Easter were eligible to enter the Big Tex Choice Awards, arguably the biggest prize for fried fair food in the nation. Winning one of those three awards — for best taste either savory or sweet, or most creative — or even being a Top 10 finalist is huge. The Big Tex Choice Award finalists have their own map available for fairgoers looking for the best new foods to try. It's the Michelin Guide of deep-fried food.
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Nicole Sternes and Chris Easter hold their Big Tex Choice Awards trophy at their restaurant, Southside Steaks & Cakes.
Kathy Tran

"If you are on the Big Tex Choice Awards map, then your numbers will easily go up by as much as 100%," says Brent Reaves, whose father, “Smokey” John Reaves, started working at the fair in 1978, only the second African American concessionaire at the time. Brent and his brother Juan have operated the concession together since their father's death in 2010.

Reaves attributes part of vendors' success to efficient operations, but being on the map directly boosts the bottom line.

"Last year, our Crispy Crazy Corn was a finalist, and we were on the map," he says. "The response we received was the response of a winning item. Between the map and the State Fair’s amazing PR and marketing team, we ended 2021 with, for us, phenomenal numbers."

Being on the map, Reaves says, is a "life-changing" difference. But getting there is not easy. Dreaming up a unique dish and then serving it quickly and efficiently is no small task, as illustrated in an A&E series, Deep Fried Dynasty, which followed several concessionaires at last year’s fair. The show highlighted the mishaps (broken or missing equipment), challenges (employees) and uncontrollable elements (rain). Some concessionaires don’t leave the fairgrounds for the duration of the fair and sleep in trailers at night in an adjacent lot.

Fairgoers don’t see that. They just want to know, “What will they fry next?”

Easter got his idea for Peanut Butter Paradise from a former customer who helped with their nonprofit at the restaurant. The man had told Easter that he had been incarcerated for 35 years for a murder he didn’t commit.

“He told me the only time he got peace was to go back in his cell and take a honey bun and spread peanut butter on it. It would remind him of the free world,” Easter says.

Honey buns topped with peanut butter are a popular prison food. They're often sold in commissaries and have even made the list of final meal requests for those on death row, as in the case of a North Carolina man convicted of murdering six people. Another prisoner, Aaron Hernandez, a former NFL player who died by suicide in prison, reportedly ate 20 honey buns in one night behind bars.

Prison Legal News, a human rights defense center, reports that buns are sometimes used as currency in prison: "Virginia prisoner George Alec Robinson paid his public defenders in honey buns after they spared him from a death sentence. He said, 'This is all in the world I can give you guys,' attorney James C. Clark told the Washington Post."

Easter has his own history with honey buns in South Dallas. Despite growing up in the area, his mother had never been to the fair before last year. On the rare occasions Easter was able to go when he was young, he says they couldn't afford the fried treats. His family never ate out at restaurants.

“We’d eat at the corner store, and the corner store only,” he says. Honey buns were one of his favorite store-bought splurges.
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Peanut Butter Paradise is a fried honey bun with loads of peanut butter.
Lauren Drewes Daniels

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In August, six judges gathered at the fairgrounds to taste each of the Big Tex Choice Awards finalists in both the sweet and savory categories. Easter paid careful attention to timing — even how long the judges were chatting between bites — to ensure the honey bun was still warm when they tried it. While waiting for the judges’ final decisions, Sternes got nervous.

“He called me during the contest and said, ‘Where are you?’ I was in the car because I was trying to pray,” Sternes says. “He came and found me and pulled me out and said, ‘You got this! Now come on and stop making my staff nervous.’”

Peanut Butter Paradise went up against a field of nine other desserts by vendors who have been doing this for a long time, for generations in some cases. In their rookie season in the competition, they won the Big Tex Choice Award for Best Taste – Sweet.

For months, Easter told Sternes and their son they were going to win. “He spoke it into being,” Sternes says.

Since then, people drop by their restaurant just to say congratulations and, “I see you out there.”

“Getting into the fair was a win for our community,” Sternes says.

The 277 acres that make up the fairgrounds has a troubled past with South Dallas. In 1969, homes and businesses of the African-American community were bulldozed to make way for large parking lots so white fairgoers would feel more at peace rolling into the fair, which is in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

Until 1961, the fair had Negro Achievement Day, a disingenuous label for the one day of the year that African Americans could attend the fair. In 1955, NAACP Youth Council Dallas adviser Juanita Craft organized a picket line at the front gates with signs that read, "Today is negro appeasement day at the fair, stay out."

“Getting into the fair was a win for our community.” – Nicole Sternes

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In more recent decades, the fair, which operates as a nonprofit, has worked to invest money into the economically depressed area of South Dallas by way of jobs, grants for local initiatives and scholarships to students at nearby high schools. In 2022 alone, 23 organizations in the area received $148,000 in grants. Since 1992, more than 3,000 students attending six high schools surrounding Fair Park have received $16.1 million in scholarships.

The fair also created the Juanita Craft Humanitarian Award to honor the leader's legacy of activism in the community, recognizing her "crucial role in integrating the State Fair of Texas among other universities, restaurants and theatres around Dallas."

Still, Sternes and Easter represent the nearest restaurant to ever make it into the fair. And during their rookie season competing in the Bix Tex Choice Awards, they made it to the very top, with a nod to their roots and the help of a person in their neighborhood.

“The beauty is that Southside Steaks & Cakes is representing the community," Reaves says. “I’m proud to see that representation. I’m also happy to see that the fair gave someone in the community an opportunity to show their gifts. This couple with their business is showing the beauty that is within South Dallas. Their excellence will grab the attention of a market that normally may not give them a chance. Now, being at the top, they cannot be ignored.”

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Chris Easter hugs family after learning he and his wife had won the Big Tex Award, Best Taste – Sweet.
Lauren Drewes Daniels

With just two weeks before opening day, Sternes and Easter were prepping for a busy season.

“My house looks like a honey bun factory,” Sternes says as Easter pulled out his phone to show a photo of a mountain of stacked white boxes he started collecting this summer. Remember rule No. 1: Never run out of food.

“I think it’s going to work itself out,” Easter says of getting enough honey buns. “I’ve been able to talk to a couple of suppliers and get pallets at a time, weekly. I’m thinking if I can get 2,500 every four days, I should hit the mark.”

They closed their restaurant in late September to focus on the fair, and the space will become a temporary honey bun holding facility. They had to completely re-create a kitchen at the fair; last year when they walked up they were stunned at the emptiness. Even the flooring had to be brought in, as well as all the equipment.

Their employees, to whom they attribute a large part of their success, all head to the fair to work the long 10- and 12-hour days — up to 79 hours a week — and that's just when the gates are open. There's also prep and cleanup.

Melanie Linnear is the senior vice president of concessions at the fair and has worked closely with Sternes and Easter over the past year to make sure they're successful.

“Chris and Nicole have deep roots in the southern Dallas community. Everyone calls him ‘Scoota,’” says Linnear, whose sister attended school with Sternes. “Their corporation is called ‘SouthSide the Realest.’ Chris says it’s ‘straight (real) from the heart,’ and he is all about keeping it real with the people in the community.”

Sternes and Easter hosted a tasting for Linnear and her team at their restaurant earlier this year. Linnear remembers a homeless man who came in asking to pick up trash around the parking lot to earn money for food.

“He did not have to pick up the trash because Chris made sure he was provided with food to eat, and Nicole instructed her team to provide water to take with him when he left. To me, that was keeping it real. In that moment, I had made up my mind to book them for the 2021 fair, and the rest is history,” Linnear says.

She connected them with Tim Williams, the COO of Williams Chicken and a former vendor at the fair. He and several other vendors, among them the Reaves brothers, acted as mentors that first year.

“They always plan their work and work their plan while looking ahead to what’s next in their food and beverage business,” Linnear says of Easter and Sternes. “The Big Tex Choice Awards was their next step.”

When asked about where they see themselves in 10 years, the couple pauses and looks at one another, then Easter asks his wife if she wants to go first. In addition to continuing their run at the fair, they want to be mentors for other restaurants in their neighborhood, particularly along Al Lipscomb Way, to help lift others up. They also want to expand their concessionaire business by attending other events.

As for the man who gave Easter the idea for Peanut Butter Paradise, they lost track of him during the pandemic when the restaurant was closed. They think he moved away but hope he reappears soon. "We keep hoping he sees the news and shows back up so we can tell him that we won," Sternes says.
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.

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