It was in 1980 when Leanne and Wade Russell began their Jaffle Sandwich pilgrimages to the Kansas State Fair.
The couple from Hudson have always been great cooks. But that year, before the fair started, they were looking for something a bit different to try.
The Russells had a café in Sterling. And, in 1980, were searching for a way to take their food on the road.
When they are not at the state fair, Wade is the minister at Trinity Community Church in Hudson. Leanne is a diagnostic therapist at the Center for Consultation and Counseling in Great Bend.
And they are parents to Ryan Russell, Stafford County’s Economic Development director.
But 43 years ago, they were looking for another way to share their love for cooking.
“Well, we just sold our restaurant in Sterling and were looking for something else to do,” said Leanne Russell. “And Wade found out that a space was open at the State Fair. So, he sent off for some information about some products for Turo. The guy sent back 30 pages about the Turo and one page about the Jaffle Sandwich.
“We looked at that one page and I said ‘the Jaffle Sandwich sounds good.’ So, we went with that.”
Jaffle is Australian meaning … well, sandwich.
But the Jaffle Sandwich is so much more than a sandwich.
“The cowboys would bake them with cast iron grills that had both top and bottoms,” Leanne said. “They would put the bread in and the filling and toast them over a fire.”
For those who are long-time fairgoers, the Russell’s Jaffle Sandwich booth is located across from Ye Old Mill.
“The first year we did this, we had to buy bread in Canada,” Leanne said. “The man we bought the Jaffle bakers from sold us the bakers but said we would have to buy the bread from him. His bread was quite expensive for back then.
“It was 80 cents for 1,000 loaves.”
Eight hundred dollars, a hefty price no matter what year it was sold.
Wade had to pick the loaves of bread up in Ontario, Canada.
Leanne had helpers but that first year and the sandwiches sold out, despite the fact that some Kansans can be picky eaters when it comes to trying something new.
The Russells invested in another 1,000 loaves to take their Jaffle Sandwiches on the road – to other events – next in line was the Neewollah Festival in Independence.
And then on to the Tulsa fair.
“So, through all that, we got to selling Jaffle sandwiches,” Leanne said. “People would try them and absolutely love them.”
But, at first, it was hard to get people to try the sandwiches.
“We never had any trouble getting people to try the Jaffles at Neewollah, but at the Kansas State Fair, it was hard, at first.”
But once they did, the Jaffles became a fair favorite!
“Each year, it is a lot of work, but we do enjoy seeing the people,” Leanne said. “People come by and say hi to us.”
Leanne said they even have a few truck driver customers who park outside the fair grounds and walk in – just to buy the Jaffle sandwiches.
“They tell the guys at the gate, ‘We’re just getting Jaffles!”
So, how many Jaffle sandwich varieties are there?
There is the Meat Jaffle.
“We called it that because 43 years ago, they wouldn’t let us call it the Pizza Jaffle,” Leanne said. “It has sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and a sauce,” she said. “That’s the most popular and then, we have chicken, ham and cheese, veggie and then the Dessert Jaffle – with an apple pie filling.”
And then, they also have Lemonade.
Pure lemonade made from scratch, none of that powdery stuff.
“We make it with fresh squeezed lemons and our own sugar water. It’s just pure juice,” Leanne said. “It’s pretty yummy.”
Leanne says that she and Wade plan on manning their Jaffle Sandwiches booth at the Kansas State Fair for many more years, until they can no longer do it.
Then, they hope, their grown children will take over their long-standing tradition.
“I just have felt all along that the kids were going to take over,” she said.
And, in his spare time, Leanne said, that Ryan will be helping out his parents this year at the fair.
And that’s always a good fair tradition when families get together.