At the North Carolina State Fair, there are hundreds of vendors competing for people’s attention. Flashy lights, sizzling smells and that enthusiastic arcade game emcee that never shuts up about your chance to win a prize all bombard your senses as you walk through the fair.
One of the stands is a modest tent with no LED lights. What gets people to do business at Carolina Kettle Corn is the enthusiasm of the cooks, and a constant stream of free samples.
Owner Patrick Dougherty can be seen working hard to keep the operation going. He co-owns the business with his wife, and their extended family members volunteer to work at the stand. His pregnant wife handles the money, while cousins rotate bagging the popcorn and pouring free samples. Everyone takes it upon themselves to yell out ‘free samples!’ to the crowd.
Dougherty is always stirring the pot, whether it’s joking around with his family or whipping up a new batch of hot popcorn. It only takes about four minutes to cook a whole batch, and Dougherty said they go through about 400 pounds of kernels each day.
That amount of popcorn brings in a decent profit, too. Dougherty said they make about $1,200 to $2,000 each day at the fair. None of it goes to them, though; it’s all a fundraiser for the Downtown Raleigh Lions club. The community service organization uses it to do activities and outreach with the Governor Morehead School for the blind. Dougherty and his friend Steven Malahyas, whom Dougherty describes as an honorary member of his family, are both members of the Lions club. They go to Carolina Mudcats baseball games with the Morehead students and buy presents for them around the holiday season.
“It really pulls on the heartstrings to see people without things you take for granted everyday,” Malahyas said.
When they’re not volunteering, Dougherty does professional development for educators, and Malahyas works in research. Malahyas jokes that doing popcorn is a nice change from his everyday life. “Several of my projects take years and years to complete, but a batch of kettle corn can be done in a few minutes,” he said. “It’s the instant gratification of seeing a job done from start to finish so fast.”
In order to cook the kettle corn, Dougherty turns on a giant bunsen burner that heats to pot to above 400 degrees. Once the corn gets to popping, he has to clear a five foot radius to prevent people from being burned with flying kernels. Having to stay close to the pot and stir, Dougherty gets hit with a hot kernel more often than he’d like.
“It’s a battle wound for sure, and it burns,” he said. “The sugar is sticky and hot. But at least I’ve never gotten it in my face.”
The business has been at the state fair for 25 years, but Dougherty and his wife have only been in charge of it for four years. They bought the name recognition and the recipe from their neighbors. Many of their customers are repeats, including Josh Hazeloom of Durham.
“We always take a couple bags home with us,” Hazeloom said. “We hope it will last a week, but it probably won’t even be there for 24 hours.”
Throughout the fair on Saturday night, Dougherty waved to at least five customers he recognized. With his family by his side, there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but they were needed in order to keep up with the demand. With a joke here and a friendly punch there, spirits stayed high as the cousins competed to see who could fill up the bags the fastest.
The attendance at the state fair was a record high on the last day of the fair, with 130,319 attendees in total. Over the course of the ten days the fair was open, 977,256 people went in total. The most popular year ever for the fair was 2010, when attendance exceeded a million people.