The Cary Inn Food Booth at the NC State Fair Sticks to the Basics

This third-generation NC State Fair food booth is sticking to the classics.

Scrolling through the food pics under #NCStateFair is like diving into someone’s insane fever dream of edible oddities. Think banana cream pie doughnuts the size of a child’s head. Krispy Kreme burgers a cardiologist probably thinks should be illegal. DoriEsquites (Doritos and Mexican street corn), minipancake s’mores skewers, every type of fried candy imaginable. … Each year it seems the food booths try to outdo one another in a Willy Wonka-esque race to see who can serve up the most viral bite of the year.

Well, almost every food booth. Head over to The Cary Inn and you’ll encounter a menu more in line with the fairs of yore, a refreshing find in a sea of Instagrammable Frankenfoods. The third-generation family-run booth has steadfastly chosen to serve classic fair food rather than get swept up in the craze of whatever is new and hot each year.

Marissa Jessup, whose grandmother Lily Ray was part of the original partnership that started The Cary Inn back in 1980 and whose father, Preston Ray (Lily’s son), is now the owner, has grown up as the ultimate fair insider. She began working at the booth when she was 6 years old—alongside multiple extended family members who have helped work the booth over the years.

“I was so eager to be able to start working at the fair like my older sisters and family, but there’s not much you can do at 6 years old,” Jessup remembers. “So my first job was serving canned drinks to customers and I loved it! I even put it on my résumé for my first ‘real’ job in high school.”

As for The Cary Inn’s nostalgic eats, “they started off only selling footlongs, fries and drinks,” Jessup recalls. The booth still offers those core items, along with red and beef hot dogs, nachos, burgers, corn dogs, and more.

“We know that among all the food craze at the fair you can never go wrong with good ole’ American foods like burgers and hot dogs,” says Jessup. “It’s simple, good-quality food that keeps our customers returning year after year.” Though, she does acknowledge they’ve made one concession to new and trending foods. … A number of years back they added a mac ’n’ cheese hot dog, a huge hit that has remained on the menu. (We’ll take three please.) 

For Jessup, returning to the NC State Fair each year offers a chance to catch up with friends and family alike. “The best part of working at the fair would be getting to spend time with my family,” she says. “It has become something that brings us together every year. Even when it’s stressful, we are still able to come together and support one another.”

And for someone who has grown up around the fair, you can bet that Jessup has her favorite foods and rides she absolutely must enjoy each year. On the edible front, her taste trends traditional like the food her family serves, naturally. “My favorite foods to eat at the fair are bacon cheese hot dogs, cheese fries and cotton candy,” she says. As for the rides, when she gets free time to explore she never misses a chance to ride the Orbiter and the Himalaya at least once each fair season.

So this year, if you’re tired of fried Oreos, giant sticks of candied bacon and the latest clog-inducing carbohydrate bomb, make your way to The Cary Inn and say hi to Jessup, her dad, and the rest of the extended Ray family while enjoying some of the same fair food that families have been enjoying for generations. 

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Angela Brown
Angela Brown is the author of our Business & Economy section.