Daley’s Dogs is based out of Columbia. (Photos by G.E. Hinson)

Flashing lights and sticky fingers.

Ketchup stains on a white T-shirt.

Smiling faces serving thousands of people thousands of fries, corn dogs, funnel cakes and turkey legs. A kid getting his first sip of fresh lemonade. 

“People in South Carolina really love their fair food,” said Nancy Smith, general manager at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds. “I think it’s a tradition for them.”

The State Fair’s food attracts people from all over the state. And it used to be a once-per-year delicacy.

Now there’s a new tradition.

The fair is hosting a Spring Fair Food Drive-Through to bring a taste of the fair each spring directly to your car window. 

The beginning

The State Fair has been an annual delight for more than 150 years – a feast for the senses.

No matter the circumstances, the show must go on at the fairgrounds at Assembly Street and Rosewood Drive.

Only a worldwide pandemic could stop the flow of fair fun. The 1918 influenza pandemic brought the fair to a screeching halt. 

In 2020, organizers refused to let that happen with COVID-19.

But standing shoulder-to-shoulder in food lines was not an option.

“We did (it like) some of our other fair folks were doing,” Smith said. “We developed the drive-through, and that went over wonderfully.”

The first drive-through event featured highlights of a normal fair. Fairgoers saw live animals and information about competitive exhibits, art, entertainment and the fair’s scholarship program from the comfort of their vehicles.

But food was the heavy hitter. 

“That was really a good way to let people know we’re not going anywhere,” Smith said.

The drive-through food was such a hit that the State Fair made it a regular event. 

Fourth annual

October’s main fair has been back in full-swing since 2021, but people still can’t get enough.

The Spring Fair Food Drive-Through is a way to get a fair food fix even sooner.

“I think people like it because it’s just something different this time of the year. Everyone’s used to getting fair food in October,” said Demetri Strates, a third-generation concessionaire. 

Hundreds of hungry mouths mean efficiency is at the top of the fair’s to-do list.

Visitors receive a menu at the entry gate and drive across the fairgrounds to get in line.

Three lanes are lined with iconic food from some of the fair’s most popular concessionaires. Guests pull up ready to order and are served at their windows by an on-foot vendor. 

The interactions often take fewer than 60 seconds, said Cliff Daley, owner of Daley’s Dogs, a staple corn dog stand. 

“This is kind of like being on the interstate and you’re on cruise control,” Daley said. “It’s just consistent, steady flow.”

Free entry lets guests focus on the main event. 

Star of the show

South Carolinians and fair food go together like red on a candy apple.

Hundreds pass through the drive-through during its week-long operation. 

“The folks here just really, really love it,” said Jerry Price, owner of Fiske Fries. “They must save up their money all year long to come to the fair.”

Fries, corn dogs, hot dogs, sausage sandwiches and funnel cakes are stars of the limited menu at the drive-through. 

The same concessionaires have worked the event each year since it began.

Some are local. Some are not.

But they’re all some of the best in the business, Daley said. 

Daley knows the best time to drop fresh corn dogs into the fryer because he can see new cars drive up. And the limited menu gives Strates an opportunity do something out of the ordinary at his stand, he said. 

Freshly made food keeps guests coming back for more, and guests know exactly what they want. 

“We’ve added new dimensions to it this year, because we knew people enjoyed it,” Smith said. “But we thought, you know, we need to add a few things to it and listen to what our folks are asking us to do.”

Recent additions such as lemonade and park-or-picnic options have made the drive-through even more successful.

And this year’s new free movie nights on Friday and Saturday are geared toward families. 

One of the main focuses of the event is family friendliness, Smith said. 

Fair food and fair culture are steeped in family tradition, no matter if you’re eating the food or serving it, she said. 

A family affair

Fair food is wrapped in history and bagged in tradition no matter how it’s made. 

Multiple menu items are made in stands that have been in families for generations. 

Daley batters, fries and wraps corn dogs before handing them off to his son Bobby to deliver to the next car. 

Bobby will mark the third generation at Daley’s Dogs when he takes over the business. His family started making corn dogs in 1962.

Strates’ grandfather started their stand in 1981. Decades of tradition and love go into each bite. 

The same family in the same stands often serve the same families through the years.

“We watch people bring their kids, and kids grow up, getting married,” Price said. 

His family has been serving Fiske Fries for over 85 years. They travel the East Coast serving one of fair food’s crown jewels.

The State Fair has been operating since 1869. South Carolina has gone without it only once. The fair, fair food and its culture simply are a necessary constant.

“There’s so many things changing in the world, and then they know the fair has been here their whole lifetime,” Price said.

The spring drive-through is open from 11 a.m. through 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. The hours are 11 a.m. through 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Guests do not have to leave their vehicles to order, pay or receive their food.

Entry to the Spring Fair Food Drive-Through is free.

Lemonade was added to 2023’s limited drive-through menu.

The Spring Fair Food Drive-Through plans to expand in the future.

Vehicles can be served from the passenger or driver’s side window.