By Patti Wilson Contributing Editor
Traveling to any state fair can turn into an adventure of gastronomic delight, when you play your cards wisely. Don’t try to deny it. Our readership will prowl the cattle barns, watch their grandchildren excel in the show ring, inspect new machinery and visit with old friends. But, darn it, we eat, too.
This year, the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island welcomed its 4 millionth visitor. It has hosted the event for 14 years since a move from Lincoln in 2010.
Who’s Going to Feed These People?
According to the state fair director of marketing, roughly 310,000 fairgoers attended this year. They were served by 62 food vendors with revenue north of $2.1 million. Beef is always on the menu in Nebraska, however, one may also encounter prime fillet alligator-on-a-stick, frog legs and pork rind nachos.
What about us not-so-adventurous adults? I would be remiss not to mention the Beef Pit, run by the Nebraska Cattlemen. It is at the top of the food chain each year and a great place to get a “real meal.” Trust me, that’s important to folks showing livestock.
And The Winner Is …
Nebraska State Fair hosts an annual New and Unique Food Vendor Contest with categories for savory foods (meats) and sweets. This year’s Savory Division winner was Cactus Jack’s, with their Creamy Mac ’n Cheese loaded with slow-smoked brisket, topped with sliced jalapenos and drizzled with BBQ sauce. Dubbed “Jack Mac,” it was voted best by fairgoers, giving the St. Libory-based vendor its fourth title at the event.
Jeff Leo, proprietor of Cactus Jack’s, was gracious enough to visit with me at the start of his busiest day of the year at the Nebraska State Fair – Labor Day. His sole business is the traveling food service, which he runs with his wife, Sarah. They own two units, the smaller of which is towed most frequently. Summer months are spent at county fairs, rodeos, ranch expos and community events.
State fair requires a larger unit, a behemoth designed and built by Leo himself to accommodate throngs of hungry folks. They served more than 6,500 burgers during the run in Grand Island in addition to 700 pounds of the mac ’n cheese dish. On the busiest day, 2,000 hungry folks will storm the vendor.
Made from a shipping container, the facility holds a cold-storage unit, kitchen and service space. Built in 2018, it is used solely for the state fair. It is accompanied by various antiques – an elderly pickup, auto, truck and assorted items surround Cactus Jack’s dining area. Rust is the color of the day; Leo is fond of the “patina.” No Rustoleum is used here.
The vendor unit is hauled by means of a lowboy trailer. It’s extremely durable and sits outside year round behind Leo’s shed at home. To me, it looks like the eighth wonder. Who could build a thing like that?
Leo just plain enjoys cooking. His beef is purchased commercially and Prime steak burgers are his biggest seller. The latest winner, Jack Mac, has also taken off like a rocket. “I’ve never had one take over like this,” Leo says.
It is only one of many new entrees he has created. He says you “must always have a new concept to survive in business.”
Outside of the food, he enjoys the people and the fun they have in eating. Each community they serve is unique, making every visit brand new and rewarding. He is particularly grateful for his employees, saying they are good and dependable.
“It takes a special kind of person to work here,” Leo says, “It’s hard but fun.” He finds no downside to the business.
Five to six months of the year are quiet. October to February, Leo’s family is together. He enjoys coaching fourth grade football and converted an 1885 barn into a home where they reside. Hunting and fishing round out the days he spends with their sons, Jaxon, 13, and Ryker, 8. Leo explains the boys are old enough to be good help during busy summer months as well. When things get hectic, grandparents are close by to ride herd on the youngsters. They are indispensable members of the extended family.
Jeff Leo says he loves his job so much you could even call it a hobby. It’s no wonder Cactus Jack’s is a state fair winner.