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  • The Mount Airy News

    Ground Steak star of the festival

    By John Peters,


    For a day, Dobson was far more than the county seat, at least in the eyes of food enthusiasts. For food truck connoisseurs, the town was Ground Zero.

    Seafood, slushies, tacos, kettle corn, Japanese cuisine, various sorts of burgers, multiple flavors of frozen lemonade, even gourmet coffee — was all there. Yet a humble Surry County dish was the star of the show — the ground steak sandwich.

    Then again, that should not be a surprise given that the gathering in Dobson was the annual North Carolina Ground Steak Festival.

    While all the food trucks stayed relatively busy, it was the Flat Rock Ruritan Club’s ground steak sandwich booth which was always under seige by a line of people sometimes streching seemingly half-way across the festival. While plenty of restaurants and organizations might make some version of the sandwich, it’s the Ruritan Cllub’s version that is famous throughout the county.

    “They’re lining up for us,” said Rhonda Riggs, a member of the club who stayed busy taking orders from folks in that line. “We only do this twice a year. At Autumn Leaves Festival, and now here,” she said of the second annual ground steak festival. “I’ve had people tell me this is the only reason they’re coming here. They get their sandwiches and then they go.” Some folks, Riggs said, order multiple sandwiches to take home and enjoy over coming days.

    Travis Frye, who serves the dual role of coordinator for the Dobson Tourism Authority and the Surry County Tourism Authority, said the ground steak is certainly a major drawing card for the festival.

    But there were plenty of other activities to entice people to the festival. In addition to the food trucks, craft and specialty product vendors lining half of the street, other people were scattered across the town park, listening to a series of local bands playing throughout the day; a few inflatables kept many of the kids busy; and the town’s ever-popular splash pad was open and busy.

    “You work with the stuff that’s around you,” Frye said of putting together a festival. “And we have some really good stuff in Dobson to work with.”

    That variety of activities and things to see was paying off Saturday. Around mid-day, Frye said he estimated the festival had already brought more than 7,000 people to its confines — matching the total from the inaugural year. With dinner time and the cooler evening air expected to make concert viewing a more pleasant experience, this year’s number was well on its way toward smashing the 2023 figures.

    While the festival depends on the diverse array of food, activities, and booths, it’s clear the ground steak sandwich is the main attraction.

    “We’ve been to Mayberry Days, we’ve been to the Autumn Leaves Festival,” said Steve Heath, of Rural Hall.

    “We’ve even been to an apple festival,” chimed in his wife, Susan Heath.

    “But we’ve never had a ground steak sandwich,” Steve Heath said as both of them stepped away from the Ruritan club’s booth, each with a sandwich and a drink in their hands. “So, we thought we’d come up and try it.”

    Frye said there were quite a few folks from outside Surry County at the event. “People have come up from Charlotte, from New Bern, even from Franklin, Tennessee,” he said. Later, another festival patron volunteered that he had travel from Tampa, Florida — though he was originally from Mount Airy and timed his visit to the area to coincide with the festival.

    Frye said it’s a number of efforts that have helped the festival grow so quickly — media coverage, social media marketing, and most of all, word of mouth.

    “Folks who came here last year were like ‘Wow, there’s a lot of things we can do with our kids, with our families,” he said.

    That, along with the growing popularity of the Ground Steak Trail, has begun to put the festival on the map, and on people’s travel calendar.

    The trail, he said, was an effort began by the two tourism groups, along with area restaurants, to recognize those places making and selling the ground steak sandwich. The trail, publicized online and in print, is meant to entice people to visit all of the participating restaurants.

    “We started that in May 2022, with 11 restaurants,” he said. “Ever since then we have been building that, people get a taste of the ground steak sandwich, of what we have to offer, and they want to see more.” Many of those folks, checking out one or two of the restaurants while traveling through the area, have made it a point to return for the festival, he said.

    “And those people are staying here, lodging overnight,” he said, showing the local economic benefit goes beyond a single restaurant meal.

    He said some local merchants were also getting involved, offering discounts for the day on goods in their stores.

    “Overall, I’m immensely pleased with not only the number of tourists, but how the community, how the town and the county and the merchants, are working together.”

    That effort, he hopes, will lead to more tourists, and bigger crowds at future festivals. Already, Frye said he and others working with him are looking at additions to the gathering — maybe even a ground steak tasting contest. But, that’s down the road. For now, he’s content to enjoy the aftermath of the weekend’s festival, evaluate what can be improved, and encourage local residents and visitors to keep visiting restaurants on the Ground Steak Sandwich Trail.

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