In the early 1980s, a country dancing couple from Dallas had an encounter with funnel cake that would alter their lives. John and Wanda “Fernie” Locke Winter had been hired to host a week of events at Kirkwood Lodge, a square-dancing spot in Osage Beach, Missouri. John was a well-known “caller” who read out steps to choreographed dances as Fernie demonstrated. They went twice every year, but this time, something different caught their attention.
“Mother was so excited when she came back, telling us about—‘I think I found something we need to bring to the fair,’ ” remembers the couple’s youngest daughter, Johnna McKee. And that something was funnel cake.
The Winters had started working in the Embarcadero Building during the State Fair of Texas around the mid-1960s. They were brought in as concessionaires by a fellow dancer as a way to earn extra cash. When the Winters took over the corner space in the building, called the Dock, a few years later, they started by selling corned beef and roast beef sandwiches and later added the first nachos to be sold at the fair, according to the family.
After John and Fernie returned from Missouri in the early eighties, a tide turned for the family business. Their booth started selling the deep-fried cake made with Golden Dipt mix, peanut oil, and powdered sugar for $1.50 each. The Winters—and the State Fair of Texas—would never be the same.
“We were kind of shocked,” remembers Christi Erpillo, the third daughter out of four. “We didn’t know it was going to be so iconic. We just thought we had a new idea. We didn’t know it was going to be one of the staples, like the Fletchers.”
Even though the fair is the epicenter of fried-food innovation in Texas, funnel cakes have remained the best-seller, says Melanie Linnear, the State Fair of Texas’s senior vice president of concessions. “It just caught on,” she says, explaining that when touring other state and county fairs, desserts like elephant ears and cinnamon sugar–dusted fried dough are more popular.
Although Fernie’s was the first to sell funnel cakes at the fair, today there are around ten other vendors selling the treats as well. But when asked, Linnear sends fairgoers to Fernie’s. It is “the epitome of a perfect funnel cake,” she says. Erpillo and McKee are perfectionists, and you can taste the difference, according to Linnear. “They put more love and devotion into it than other people do,” she says.
Erpillo started helping her parents at the Dock—one of the fair’s few air-conditioned, sit-down restaurants—when she was seventeen years old. Other square-dancing friends and family members helped out in the beginning. “It was all hands on deck,” she says.
With the help of her family, Fernie eventually took up the scepter as the Funnel Cake Queen. Fernie and John loved the attention and the steady stream of business they got from Fernie’s Funnel Cakes. According to McKee, “they were very socially liked” and known for throwing the best after-parties. Fernie wore blazers and a constant smile, and “Gentle John” referred to most everyone as “honey, darlin’, baby, sweetheart . . . That’s how he was,” McKee says.
Today McKee and Erpillo run the five Fernie’s stands and the brand. Erpillo is the creative mind that’s led Fernie’s to eighteen finalist appearances in the Big Tex Choice Awards—more than any other vendor. She keeps a binder of ideas she’s gleaned from watching cooking shows, reading magazines, surveilling new items at the grocery store, and scrolling social media. Everyone in the family knows to call “Aunt Christi” if they have an idea. The fried Texas sheet cake and deep-fried peaches and cream are the menu items most people request to return, but when asked what her personal favorite is, Erpillo says, “Whatever one we’re selling that year.”
If Erpillo is the creative mind, McKee is the businesswoman who can rattle off statistics such as how scoring a Best Taste win in the Big Tex Choice Awards can increase a stand’s profits by up to 45 percent for the year. Erpillo insisted the awards be separated into sweet and savory categories, and it’s been that way since 2017. “I am my mother’s daughter,” Erpillo says.
While running a fair stand is mostly fun, it’s stressful when tragedy strikes. During the 1989 fair, John Winter died. Other concessionaires worked the funnel cake stand the next day so the family could attend his funeral. Fernie returned to work at the fair every day afterward that year, waiting until the last day was done to give herself over to grief.
“Mother was the strongest woman alive,” McKee says.
But Fernie was insistent that John’s death not determine how Fernie’s Funnel Cakes would be remembered. Fernie ran the joint until 2020 and died a year later, at age 95. Now her memorial table and the chair from which she oversaw production (although she was unafraid to take her walker behind the frying station if necessary) sit empty. “I still can’t sit at that table,” says Erpillo, and McKee affirms: “None of us have.”
Erpillo and McKee continue the family legacy. The menu at the Dock changes slightly each year to include Erpillo’s newest stab at a Big Tex Choice Award. This year the Fernie’s deep-fried cherry pie, a top-ten finalist, will be available, and the newly launched Fernie’s Funnel Cake Cream, a wine-based cocktail, will be sold in cookie-glass shots and in an espresso martini. But most things remain as they were in Fernie’s day.
“Mother and Daddy started it. That was the first chapter,” Erpillo says. “Now we’re the second chapter, and we’re trying to set the third chapter up for success.”