Chris Easter and Nicole Sternes closed their South Dallas restaurant for more than a month last fall to attend the State Fair of Texas.
No, the couple wasn’t looking for reasonable prices or horse riding tours.
The husband-wife co-owners of SouthSide Steaks and Cakes on Al Lipscomb Way — just a stone’s throw from Fair Park — made their second appearance as food stall vendors.
They didn’t have enough employees to staff both the fair and the food court, so they put SouthSide on the line, expecting hungry hordes to flock to their stand at the fair.
Almost on a lark, they had entered Easter’s daring creation, Peanut Butter Paradise, landing the Big Tex Choice Award for best-tasting sweet before the fair opened.
“The media told us no one had ever won on their first try,” said the 45-year-old Sternes. “It was a win for our whole community. People congratulated us and patted us on the back because we’re young, we’re a couple, and that competition is really a big deal.”
During the fair, they hired a rotating staff of about 30, who served up nearly 18,000 of the tricked-out deserts — $20 for one, $35 for two — along with the funnel cakes and Texas-style Philly cheesesteaks.
“Some [employees] lasted about two days and left because they couldn’t make it,” Sternes said.
Peanut Butter Paradise is a monument to self-indulgence, built on a duchess honey bun, dipped in funnel cake batter, deep fried (of course), injected with caramel syrup, slathered with peanut butter, surrounded by Reese’s Pieces, and topped with Reese’s Miniature Cups and a tiny paper umbrella.
“One of my gifts is being creative,” said the 46-year-old Easter, who used to be a jewelry maker. “This was the first time I got to showcase my skills in the food industry. I knew it was a winner as soon as I entered it in the food competition. When we won, I told Nicole, ‘You know, we’re part of Black history. “
None of this would have happened without COVID.
The couple, who live in DeSoto, had applied to the State Fair for a booth three times previously, only to be denied.
But in 2021, a long-standing concessionaire with a dozen stands did not want to risk pandemic exposure, and six stands entered the field for new suppliers. The State Fair chose Easter and Sternes to replace one in front of the steps of the Cotton Bowl.
“That was our golden opportunity,” Sternes said. – It was a blessing for us.
Bringing Philly to Texas
The foundation of SouthSide Steaks and Cakes’ menu is Philly cheesesteaks with a two-fisted Texas spin: sliced beef or chicken smothered in jalapeños, onions, banana peppers, paprika and gooey melted cheese.
It’s also known for its chicken wings that come in 20 wet wing flavors and 10 dry rubs, and its Texas-shaped funnel cakes that can be paired with all kinds of not-so-low-calorie sides.
Fortunately, they don’t have to reveal nutritional information for a trip to paradise. But as close as Easter can calculate, it’s about 875 calories, give or take. Using imaginative shopping and bargains, they now sell Peanut Butter Paradises for $12 a pop, $20 for two at the restaurant.
When asked about more “healthy” food, Easter talks about the recently added Big Valley, a meatless option that stands nearly 4 inches tall with fried pickles, fried tomatoes, onion rings, special sauce and the usual burger toppings.
Uses street lingo
“We call ourselves the Cheesesteak Trap because our food is addictive,” Sternes said with a laugh. “Trap is a word we use in our culture that can be thought of negatively, but we try to put a positive spin on it.”
For the uninformed, a trap in street parlance means crack house.
“We’re in South Dallas near Fair Park. There is low income, high poverty. It was a food desert before we opened,” said Sternes, who grew up in West Dallas and graduated from South Oak Cliff High School. “When we came from the community, we decided to rule it out. We took how we grew up with socio-economic struggles and put some fun into it.”
They also play trap music in the restaurant. This offshoot of hip-hop started in the South in the 1990s, but is internationally mainstream these days despite its crack-related name.
A sandwich with fries is a five dollar nickel pack – as in $5 worth of marijuana. A small sandwich with four wings is a Dime Sack – as in $10 with dope.
“We have police officers and judges come in,” Easter said. “At first they didn’t want to divulge it. But now they say, ‘I need two Dime sacks!'”
Outside the corner shop
Back in the day, the mother of Easter, Betty Lou Easter, put a slice of American cheese on a honey bun and heated it up.
“She called it a ghetto cheesesteak,” Easter said. “It was years before I knew she was joking.”
When he was young, he used the free ticket from school to get into the State Fair, but had no money for food or a ride. He sat on the steps and watched others having fun.
The first time his 76-year-old mother set foot on the fairgrounds was the day she came to watch her son at the food competition. Previously, she could not afford to take six children with her at once, so she never took any of them.
“Tears in my eyes seeing her there,” Easter said.
As a kid growing up a few miles from Fair Park, eating out was grabbing a “meal” at the corner store.
“I think I was in the fourth grade when I said, ‘One day I’m going to open a restaurant in South Dallas.’ I didn’t even know we had a restaurant in South Dallas. It’s always been in the back of my mind.”
His family moved to Richardson when he was still in elementary school, but eating out didn’t change for him.
When he was a 15-year-old sophomore at Richardson High School, his basketball coach took him to a Chili’s — his only restaurant experience until adulthood.
Test by a barbecue fire
It was another blessing in disguise for COVID. That gave the couple time to regroup and get their shaky business plan in order.
SouthSide Steaks and Cakes started with the couple, family and volunteers handing out samples of cheesesteaks in the parking lot on the Fourth of July in 2016.
Easter could feel the childhood dream come true. The couple had been in the nursery before they opened the eatery to add sales and cash flow.
They had to start from scratch to learn the restaurant business, even going on the internet to see how to operate a cash register. Their short order side hustle was just starting to turn into a real business when the COVID shutdown hit.
“I dread it, because I worry,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Lord, what are we going to do? We have employees we have to pay. How will we pay our bills? Everything was going well, and suddenly the whole city was shut down.”
Easter passed in a temporary shock. “That morning when I heard that all the restaurants were going to close, I said: Can that be possible? Is it real?’” he said.
Then he went to work.
He created a small menu that can only be carried out and did everything as contactless and as quickly as possible.
“I had a person come in two hours before the restaurant opened to sand the whole place down from doorknob to doorknob,” he said. “I’ve always pushed for the underdog. This time I was the underdog.”
A home away from home
– The most important thing for us was the financing, said Sternes. “Thank God I’m in real estate. I had a couple of houses under contract so we managed to stay afloat. And at that time, there was a lot of support for local African-American businesses after George Floyd.”
They received money from the Paycheck Protection Program, but say they were turned away for aid meant to help small businesses in South Dallas.
Easter’s biggest worry was the fear of bringing home COVID to the couple’s then 1-year-old. “I put my clothes by the front door and told my wife to hide our daughter because as soon as she saw me, she would jump on me,” he said. “So I rushed to the shower before she could see me.”
As covid subsided, sales picked up again.
Sternes describes SouthSide as “a home away from home – a place to relax, unwind, while enjoying good company, music and food. We have a wide demographic, from the elderly to children’s birthday parties.”
The couple run a Christian non-profit organization, Opportunities Knocking at the Door, which provides resources to at-risk youth and families. Some of their restaurant staff are from the non-profit organization.
She loves spreading the gospel of their success and says it’s important for people of all colors to see a successful black couple who almost hit rock bottom but didn’t let adversity stop them.
“It’s such an uplifting story,” she said. “We didn’t know this is where we would end up.”