A couple biscuits can go a long way.
At least that’s what the bus loads of tired volunteers keep in mind as they return from a busy day at the Cary First United Methodist Church’s booth at the N.C. State Fair. These volunteers are willing to put in the extra effort to produce homemade ham biscuits, all in an effort to raise funds for the church’s missions.
This year, as the church’s busses roll out to the fairgrounds for the 2015 State Fair, the booth celebrates its 100th year serving North Carolinians. And despite the fair’s evolution over the course of a century, Cary United Methodist has upheld a tradition of home-style cooking and personalized service; all in the name of its mission projects.
History of the Booth
After opening its doors in 1871, Cary United Methodist started its relationship with the State Fair in 1916, when church members decided to open a food booth as a fundraising effort.
“That first year we made a profit of $13.32 as a church, which doesn’t seem like much now, but back then it was great,” said Robert Warner, church historian.
The funds raised in 1916 were used to carpet one of the rooms in the church. The church has had a stand at the fair every year since.
In 1928, the N.C. State Fair’s scope widened and the demand for space increased. The event moved from where the Raleigh Little Theatre is today to its current location. The Cary United Methodist booth originally was where the Dorton Arena now sits. Warner says the food stand’s setup was simple, consisting of a counter, an open kitchen area and outdoor picnic table seating for customers.
In the early years of the booth, the food was prepared at church members’ homes and transported to the fairgrounds, Warner said. Although there is no record of the original menu, he says the homemade pies were a big seller up until the health department decided that food vendors must prepare food on-site.
The stand’s “original hand biscuit,” however, has been a staple at the booth since the very beginning.
“It was the minister’s wife at the time, who knew someone from out of town that could buy the hams, and that sort of encouraged the idea for the biscuits,” Warner said. ”Like most things that happen at the church, somebody comes up with an idea and it takes off.”
The emphasis of the booth has always been home-cooked food, so much so that church members brought their equipment and recipes with them to the fairgrounds.
“Back then, the ladies really prided themselves in making everything from scratch,” said Rick Kibler, one of the booth’s managers. “Some of the ladies used to cook the ham and the pies in the house that I now live in. One lady even brought her stove out to the grounds for the church to use.”
Now that the Cary United Methodist booth has procured a home on the “permanent restaurant row” at the fairgrounds, Kibler said the work necessary to set up the booth has eased. The green and white building houses a dining space, fully-equipped kitchen, and counter that is boarded up after the fair closes and when the Raleigh Flea Market moves back in.
The permanent space has allowed Cary United Methodist to focus on creating a consistent experience for customers, while maintaining the booth’s tradition.
“We paint it every year and get it cleaned up, looking like a restaurant again,” Kibler said. “Over the years we have reconfigured the kitchen a couple times, but we always have to make sure that we get the biscuit station the way the ladies want it, because if you don’t, you’re going to hear about it. That’s the Holy Grail.”
Kibler said despite the modernization of the food’s production area, it is still the home-style cooking that keeps fairgoers coming back for more. He said the stand was built around the ham biscuit, which is a fair favorite amongst regular customers, many of whom order the sandwiches in bulk.
“Last year I had a man come in and order 50 biscuits,” Kibler said. “He came in about two hours ahead of time and said ‘Hey, I want 50 this year,’ and I had to say ‘Hey man, I can’t do 50 right now’ because we’re constantly making biscuits and people are almost always buying them.”
Former governors BevPerdue and Jim Hunt also frequented the booth for the biscuits, as well as Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.
Kibler said the church has to have a dedicated biscuit station to keep up with the demand. The church has been using the same biscuit recipe for years.
“It’s funny because the key ingredient is buttermilk,” Warner said. “They whip the buttermilk at room temperature because it makes a better biscuit. It drives the health department crazy. They’ll say ‘No, no, no you can’t keep the buttermilk out, it’s got to be cold.’”
In addition to preserving the recipe of the original ham biscuit, the Cary United Methodist stand also sticks with the same local food vendors that supply the ham, buns, and other products necessary to keep the restaurant running.
The booth’s biscuit makers have insisted upon purchasing ham from Goodnight Brothers out of Boone, and Sanford Milling Co.’s Snowflake flour for the biscuits for years.
“We’ve developed a rapport, not only with our customers, but with the people we buy our food from,” Kibler said.
And such a good rapport extends not only to the food, but also to the intention behind it.
In addition to ordering the ham biscuit, regular Cary United Methodist customers often inquire about where the money raised through the booth will go each year.
Profits raised in earlier State Fair years were directed towards church-centric needs such as worship space renovations. However, Warner said the church eventually decided to earmark the profits for items outside of the church’s budget, specifically church mission projects.
Due to the efforts of church volunteers over the years, the church’s fair booth profit has grown from the initial $13.32 to averaging a little over $50,000 each year. The average budget to operate the booth is around $115,000, and all of this money comes in to the church through member donations.
In 2014, the booth grossed more than $105,000 at the 11-day event. After expenses were deducted, the fair booth netted a total of $45,000.
Although Cary United Methodist shares its profit with White Plains Methodist Church, another Cary church that helps with the fair booth, all of the money raised funds projects that would otherwise be unaffordable.
Kibler said the church’s fair booth committee works with members of the church every year to decide what missions the church will support. He said the types of projects supported vary from year to year and are not limited to solely church and local causes.
“We spend our money all over the place,” Kibler says. “But even if we spend it on hurricane relief every year; that’s changing it up. A hurricane might be in Mississippi this year, North Carolina next year and Florida the year after next.”
In 2014, much of the money raised through the State Fair booth went to Imagine No Malaria, an organization that seeks to decrease the number of malaria victims by distributing mosquito netting to at-risk families, informing vulnerable populations on the disease and improving health facilities.
Other organizations the booth has supported over the years include Interact of Wake County, Stop Hunger Now and Living Water International. The proceeds have also gone to locals in need, among them, refugee families.
Millions of refugees spend numerous years in refugee camps outside of their home country, waiting for the chance to be relocated to a free country, with only around 1 percent eventually relocated. In 2014 alone, around 70,000 refugees from across the world come to the United States.
In 2010, Cary United Methodist donated $5,000 of its fair booth proceeds to help six refugee families with rent assistance. Chip Cothran, a church member responsible for refugee outreach, said that when refugees arrive in America, various refugee relocation agencies provide some support, but that adult household members must work to cover rent costs and pay back the travel loan for their flight to the U.S.
Cothran said many refugee agency case workers are overworked due to the monthly influx of new refugee arrivals, and therefore many cases are quickly closed. He said the agencies need churches to provide extra volunteers and financial assistance to help refugees transition.
“Can you imagine the culture shock, to have lived in a bamboo, thatched roof hut, and then coming to a modern city like Raleigh?” Cothran said. “Most refugees are frugal, and have a good work ethic, but making and meeting a frugal budget is a struggle.”
Kibler said although the booth is not the church’s only fundraiser, it is the church’s best fundraiser due to the length and scope of the event. The booth allows the church to do what it is called to do: help others.
“They say go out and help other people; do things,” Kibler said. “The fair is just an opportunity to sort of maximize the number of people you’re going to cross. We’re now going out and getting the rest of the community to support our missions and our church.”
The Booth’s Importance
Aside from maximized exposure, the other piece of why Cary United Methodist continues to open its booth every year is tradition. Warner said church members look forward to working at the booth and that fairgoers look forward to the quality meals the stand provides.
More than 500 volunteers from both Cary United Methodist and White Plain Methodist work at the fair booth each year, doing everything from baking biscuits, frying French fries, taking orders and wiping down tables. Kibler said the volunteer experience at the fair is hectic, but fun. The stand is usually busy, but he said most of the volunteers enjoy the quick pace.
“You meet so many different people,” Kibler said. “It’s generally a pleasant atmosphere. Everyone’s happy to be there and very rarely do you run into irate customers.”
As the N.C. State Fair’s longest serving vendor, Warner said Cary United Methodist’s booth is important to the fair for the sake of tradition.
“We offer an experience that people can depend on,” Warner said. “We have regular customers who come back every year because they know that they’re going to get a good meal. The other thing is that when you get a meal from our booth, you get your money’s worth. You get a lot of food.”
Kibler said he hopes that, even with future changes to the design of the fairgrounds and with the carnival company’s growth, Cary United Methodist’s booth will be able to remain at the State Fair.
“I do know that a lot of the reason why people come back to our booth every year is because they know we support missions with our money,” Kibler said. “It goes back in the community or in the world somewhere.”
Warner, on the other hand, is a little more confident.
“We’re getting ready to work on our second 100th anniversary.”