RALEIGH, N.C. --- If you're searching for some good grub at the North Carolina State Fair, it's hard to miss Big Daddy's Backyard BBQ stand.
At an event featuring a dizzying array of food trailers set up across four midways, Big Daddy's stands out for its massive wood-fired grills cooking dozens of turkey legs. The grills fill the air with smoky flavor as potential customers pass by along one of the fair's main walkways.
It's a feast for the eyes and the nose. The sizzle is tough to pass up, especially at lunch time. On the fair's final Saturday, the stand draws a big crowd as folks stop at the stand to buy a large turkey leg for $10.
When the lines get too long at the stand's four cash registers, Big Daddy's workers walk around and sell tickets to be redeemed
for turkey legs, said Neal Dorfman. He co-owns the business with Frank Zaitshik, owner of Wade Shows.
"It's all about presentation and customer service," Dorfman said.
Together, they launched the Big Daddy's brand two years ago. The stand also sells ribs, chicken, brisket and pulled pork. Separately, Dorfman runs several food concessions on his own, also booked with Wade Shows.
Dorfman, 51, has been in the carnival business most of his life starting at age 14. He was previously a games concessionaire and at one time owned a Gravitron. He booked with the old Rod Link Shows, Deggeller Attractions and Sunshine Amusements, in addition to Wade Shows.
His first job working in the carnival food business was with "Spaghetti Eddie" Porcelli. In the early 1980s, Dorfman booked food with Wade Shows and left the carnival in 2001. He suffered financially and filed for bankruptcy that year.
"I lost everything," said Dorfman, also known as "Popcorn Neal" in the industry.
Four years later, though, in 2005, Dorftman got back on his feet. In December of that year, Zaitshik called Dorfman and asked him to be his partner in the show's food operation after Butch Netterfield and his family parted ways with Wade Shows.
Their partnership evolved into the spinoff known as Big Daddy's, a major food operation in itself. Its route covers the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach, the Florida State Fair in Tampa, the Oklahoma and Tulsa state fairs and the Great New York State Fair, in addition to North Carolina.
In Raleigh, business is "phenomenal," Dorfman said. Big Daddy's goes through 1,200 cases of turkey legs at the North Carolina State Fair.
Individual cases carry 16 to 20 turkey legs. Do the math and it adds up to as much as 24,000 turkey legs sold over the course of the 11-day event.
The business makes a tidy profit. This fall, turkey legs cost $1.85 a pound in North Carolina, up from $1.36 a pound in Oklahoma, Dorfman said.
"Without the right people, I couldn't do it," he said. All told, Dorfman, through Big Daddy's and his other food trailers, employs 88 workers, 48 of which are international through the industry's H2B Visa program. In Raleigh, 22 internationals were on site working for Big Daddy's.
In late October, at the same time as the North Carolina State Fair, Dorfman had popcorn concessions at the South Mississippi State Fair in Laurel, where Wade holds the contract.
Jimmy Danton is the other primary food operator tied to Wade Shows, Dorfman said. All three, including Zaitshik, give back to the communities they serve through events that don't typically draw much attention.
One of those events, called "Miles of Smiles," that is typically held a week before Christmas at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. It's a benefit for children at risk.
For three days, Wade officials provide unlimited rides, games, food and entertainment for kids that may not otherwise have much to celebrate over the holidays. It's all free and the state of Florida sends out the invitations through the state fair authority, Dorfman said.
"Frank's a tough operator but he protects his people and does some great things for the industry," he said.