By Matt McCue
For the month of October, when the State Fair of Texas draws three million people on the edge of downtown Dallas, he pulls into a parking lot each morning at 7 a.m. and begins his mad dash.
Transferring boxes of prepared food from his off-site kitchen to his two booths, taking inventory, stocking whatever he missed, hauling trash, replacing rubber floor mats — these are the often overlooked jobs that come with being the boss of his 10-year-old operation.
"You thought I showed up for a few hours and signed autographs?" he asks, flashing a warm smile, when I visit him to see what goes on behind the magic. "Not quite. It's all hands on."
At first glance, Abel Gonzalez's menu might not seem worthy of his revered celebrity status: pineapple upside down cake, pepperoni pizza, cookie dough, Coke, and peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches.
But there's a catch: they're all deep-fried. Thanks to that, he's become famous, with appearances on The Today Show, The View, and Rachael Ray's talk show.
In 2009, Oprah visited his booth to tape a segment for her show. "The crowds were 40 deep an hour before Oprah arrived," recalls Abel. "It was a wall of people."
On this humid morning I show up on time for our interview, and though I can clearly see Abel standing in the back of his concessions tent, I introduce myself to the cashier as a formality.
"He'll be with you shortly," she tells me, as if Abel is in the middle of negotiating a deal instead of five feet away. She directs me to the state fair's version of a waiting room, the picnic table next door. I am used to movie stars and professional athletes making me wait for interviews. This was a first.
As I later learned, Abel wasn't trying to be fashionably late. He had to delay our meeting for ten minutes while he took a knee and tried to fix a tripped circuit breaker in his booth. I wondered why he hadn't asked any one of his half dozen employees to get down on their knees and do it.
"My philosophy since Day One has been to lead by example," he says later when asked about delegating unsavory tasks. "If my workers see me getting my hands messy, they can't come back and say, "He's not doing it."
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Abel is unsuccessful with the breaker, so he calls in an electrician to repair it before the fair's lunchtime crush descends upon his tents. (He rents a second booth in the Midway on the other side of Fair Park.)
Both pop-up kitchens are about 10 by 15 feet and covered in the blue vinyl siding provided, and required, by the fair. Besides workers, they house two sinks, two refrigerators, and two freezers in the rear, the fryers and prep tables in the middle, and the holding station, serving station and registers at the front.
The menus are the same at each, printed on white poster boards that boast "Big as Texas" in bold letters across the top.
By noon the booths will welcome the frenzy, and the lines won't quiet down until the fair closes at 10 p.m. Over the course of the three-week festival, Abel will sell 18,000 peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwiches, 22,000 baskets of cookie dough rounds, 5,000 pizza slices, 25,000 upside down cakes, and 18,000 orders of the headline-stealer: fried butter.
At an average price point of $5 per item, he generates roughly half a million dollars in revenue over the course of this one month. "My goal is to make $1 [profit] per item," says Abel.
Subtract operating expenses and he still clears six figures, meaning he doesn't work the rest of the year. "People are like, 'He's flying to Paris on fry money,' but it's not like that at all," he explains. "It's me and my dog in a small house. But I get to do whatever I want."
By nightfall on any given day, he'll have sampled every item at both stands — twice, once for each of the two shifts. During the day the oil temperatures stay the same. The variable is the fry cooks, and Abel taste tests for accuracy to make sure they don't serve cold pizza or burned cookie dough.
When he heads home before midnight, he'll be coated in a paste of powdered sugar and sweat, which his dog Scout will love him for. For dinner, he'll tuck into meatloaf, green beans, and a salad, and his arteries will thank him for the brief reprieve from the fryer.
Growing up ten minutes from Fair Park, Abel loved the state fair. Each October, after his mother finished her shift at the post office, she'd take Abel and his four sisters over. His grandmother packed a fried chicken dinner (and salt and pepper shakers) in foil for the family and rode the city bus to meet them there. They'd splurge on French fries and feast under the hot sun.
"It was like Easter," remembers Abel. "We'd get new outfits."
Throughout his teens and 20s, he returned each October to play the games. He loved Stand up the Bottle so much that he decided to try his hand as a carnie in 2002. After failing to break into the game business his first year, he returned as a food vendor.
Abel managed the booth while his father, who once owned a Mexican restaurant in Dallas where Abel learned to fry, oversaw the offsite prep kitchen. Their signature dish was a Texas-shaped sopaipilla, but it didn't get the results they were seeking.
"I couldn't pay for a crowd to come to my booth for the first three years," he admits. Still, Abel loved his time working at the fair, enjoying it much more than his day job as a computer analyst.
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Everything changed in 2005. That's when the State Fair of Texas, the birthplace of the corny dog in 1942, introduced a fried food competition to build the brand: Fried Food Capital of Texas®.
To try and win a coveted Best Taste or Most Creative Award, vendors have thrown anything into bubbling oil that should or shouldn't take a 350-degree bath including bubble gum, biscuits and gravy, and beer.
Judged by a rotating panel of local personalities, the competition that first year had an Elvis theme, which inspired Abel to dream up a deep-fried sandwich of peanut butter, jelly and banana. To keep the integrity of its square shape, he froze it prior to frying; once it came out of the oil, he finished it with a flurry of powdered sugar.
After it won Best Taste, Abel became a star. "It was very unexpected," he says. "I went to go grab something from my car, and when I came back to the booth there were three news crews."
The next year, defending his title, he invented fried Coke — Coca-Cola flavored batter garnished with Coca-Cola syrup — and took the prize for Most Creative, which increased his business so much that he was able to leave his desk job.
In 2007, he continued his domination and clinched Best Taste with fried cookie dough. The booth was a 24-hour operation: When his daytime employees went home after the fair closed, in came the night crew to make the 1,000 sandwiches Abel needed by sunrise. It didn't seem like it could get any better — and then he struck gold.
In 2009, Abel invented fried butter. Word of this audacious development in the world of deep-fried foods spread all the way to Oprah Winfrey, who flew to Dallas to meet Abel and see it for herself.
Like many others, Oprah was initially confused by the concept; she assumed it was a deep-fried stick of butter. Garlicky, salty, and richly buttery, it's more akin to an unbelievable version of garlic bread: Abel freezes a half-inch pat of butter and wraps it in raw biscuit dough, then submerges it in boiling vegetable oil. Dressed with a dash of garlic salt, it's meant to be eaten in one swift bite, like a donut hole, the melted butter exploding in your mouth.
"A lot of people think it's a novelty," Abel says of his daring creations. "But the thing that has kept us successful is that I try to make something that is not only a novelty, but also keeps people coming back."
Abel prides himself on using quality ingredients and makes his own cookie dough from scratch. "That's what separates us from everyone else," he says. "I don't see anyone here making their sandwiches by hand."
Between his two booths and the new off-site kitchen he runs out of a nearby bakery, he employs 70 seasonal workers, including his father and brothers-in-law. His family serves as his sounding board for the recipes he tests for inclusion on next year's menu.
"At some point I'll end up in my mother's kitchen," says Abel. "I'll be sitting with my four sisters, their kids and my parents, and I'll go, 'Why don't we try this?'"
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Back at the fair, the crowd gathers for lunch as Abel leads me on a tour of his kitchen that he and a handful of employees built by hand one month ago. Stationed in the middle, three hissing deep fryers radiate an oppressive heat, awaiting their next victims. Employees decked out in red, white and blue polo shirts crowd the tight walkways that only allow people to squeeze past at an angle. They don't stop moving, however, always expediting an order, dipping various foods in thick batters and constantly wiping down the space around them with towels.
Abel finds his spot amid the traffic. "There is a system here that if you screw with it, you are in trouble," he says of the quick-fire ballet. "Sometimes I screw things up. My employees look at me like I'm crazy, and I walk away."
Inspecting a fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich sitting on the counter, he frowns. "I don't like this—what is this?" he asks an employee who didn't cook it but is closest to him at the moment. She shrugs. "We're not going to serve it," he tells me in a way I imagine Daniel Boulud or Jean Georges might declare in their kitchens.
I thought the quartered sandwich looked uniform and fit for a customer—in fact I hoped Abel might offer me a taste—but he senses something isn't quite right, and pitches it into the garbage.
"I'm a stickler in the kitchen," he says. Without missing a beat, he adds: "There is talent involved! You can't just take a carpenter and make him a cook."
Matt McCue has contributed to ESPN The Magazine, New York, and published his first book, An Honorable Run, in 2009. The first question he usually contemplates upon waking up in the morning is, What am I going to have for dinner tonight?