Little white lie turns to 60 years of traditions

By Warren Black

In a centerfold of Life magazine in 1963, Norman Zable saw a picture of a clown eating a Belgian waffle in an advertisement for the 1963 World’s Fair in Seattle. He was so intrigued, Zable arranged for he and his wife to visit Seattle and see the waffles in person. There, he met a man called “Smitty,” who had imported the industrial waffle irons from Belgium, developed the special waffle recipe and was selling the dessert at the World’s Fair. He saw the waffles were a huge hit at the fair based on the long lines of patrons waiting patiently for their treats.

The Belgian waffles are baked, not fried, and only have 196 calories as opposed to a fried funnel cake with 790 calories.
Photos by Warren Black

After visiting Smitty, Zable wrote a letter to David Nixon, then vice president of concessions for the State Fair of Texas, and told him he now had the exclusive rights to Belgian waffle production in Texas. Zable then wrote to his new acquaintance Smitty, who had the recipes and the equipment, and told him that he had the exclusive rights to sell Belgian Waffles at the State Fair of Texas. Neither of these things were true! 

Nixon turned down Zable’s request. A few weeks later — and only three weeks before the Fair — a family friend who worked in the concession’s office at the Fair called Zable and congratulated him on getting into the Fair. Zable told her that his request had been denied. She insisted that he had been approved and had personally typed his vendor contract. So, in 1964, Zable jumped on a plane to San Francisco where Smitty lived and inked up a secret deal to buy his commercial waffle irons and recipes. Smitty sent three men from San Francisco with the irons and the recipes to come to Texas and work their first Fair in 1964. 

Back in Dallas, Zable met with Nixon, who showed him where the stand was to be located and was assured that it would end up being “in the middle of everything.’’ Located between the two automobile buildings and in front of the Hall of State, the Belgian Waffle stand has been in its location for 60 years. Zable worked the Belgian Waffle stand every year for 55 years until his death in 2020. 

Zable was born in Chicago in 1934. The family moved to Texas when he was two years old. Zable attended Highland Park High School and then SMU. He was accepted into SMU Law School and became a commercial law attorney in Dallas, representing corporations including Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins.

Zable’s son Mark took over management in 1996, but he was no stranger to the family business. He was placed under the counter at six months old and has been in the stand every year since. Mark remembers being seven years old and given $500 in bills and told to go to the Fair office to get quarters for change. He had to drag the large bag of 2,000 quarters from the Fair office back to the stand with both hands, barely making the trip. 

During those days there was a large tent at the Fair (where the Chevrolet Main Stage is now) with circus animals, including elephants. Mark remembers feeding reject and left over waffles to the elephants. “Elephants love the waffles,” he noted. 

Mark would count and roll the change at home for his father in the evenings. His teachers complained that he could not do the math in school without placing a dollar sign in front of the numbers. In the 80s, the Fair went from cash to coupons, which made life easier. Mark still carries one of the first 25 cent fair coupons as a keepsake. 

Belgian Waffles are made with a custom blended flour (a 2,000 lb. minimum order), fresh heavy cream from the dairy and strawberries — lots of strawberries. Mark is the largest buyer of fresh strawberries in the U.S. during the timeframe of the Fair. 

The waffles are baked, not fried, and only have 196 calories as opposed to a fried funnel cake with 790 calories. His father always reminded Mark, “If you present a quality product you will have continued success with your customers.”

Upon meeting Mark in person, an elderly couple at this year’s Fair told him they had eaten a Belgian Waffle every year at the Fair since 1965, when they got engaged and first started coming to the event. The elderly gentleman added that he “was making $1.25 an hour and waffles were $0.45.” 

Mark’s young son Zachary is poised to take over the family business one day.

The original cast aluminum waffle irons from the world’s fair are more than 100 years old and still in use. After 10 years of searching, Mark found the original manufacturer in Haaltert, Belgium. This spring, Mark and his wife visited the original factory and bought a new industrial cast steel waffle iron. It’s higher tech and the verdict is still out but, so far, Mark still likes the old ones better. 

Some Fair years are better than others. In 2018, there were 19 days of pouring rain, and the attendance was very low. Mark’s father taught him, “All you can do is be there, be prepared, have the product ready and the rest is out of your control.”

The family has branched out to having another Belgium Waffles stand in the Fair’s food court and also serves them at the Houston Rodeo and Stock show. Mark’s young son Zachary is now carrying on the family tradition and is poised to take over the family business one day.