The storied Steak Barn got its start as an effort to raise funds for cheerleading camp.

Stories from the Steak Barn

By Matt Reese

Ribeye sandwich with extra onions? Cheeseburger? Chopped steak sandwich? Malt vinegar on those fries? Regardless of personal preferences, most everyone acquainted with Ohio’s beef industry and the Ohio State Fair has some experience with the offerings of the Steak Barn.  

The tradition of serving up delicious ribeye sandwiches at the Ohio State Fair has brought nourishment, camaraderie and a connection with Ohio’s cattle industry to many diners since 1984. The Steak Barn — a State Fair staple located between the Voinovich Livestock Arena and the Butter Cow Display — got its start as a unique fundraiser.

In 1981, the Margaretta Junior High cheerleaders wanted to improve their skills by going to a cheer camp, but they needed to find a way to pay for it. They settled on the idea of setting up a concession stand to raise the needed funds. Bob Wright from Clyde, the father of one of those cheerleaders, went to work in his WR Farms shop crafting a vision into what would become the Steak Barn. That cheer camp was the first in a series of fundraisers for the Margaretta cheerleaders and the start of a much bigger tradition. 

At the same time, Ohio’s cattle industry was looking to have more of a culinary presence at the Ohio State Fair. The Steak Barn evolved into an agreement with the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association and the Wrights, where the organization would dictate the menu and provide volunteer help to get a percentage of the proceeds. 

“Bob and Betty Wright met with the Ohio Cattleman’s Association and developed a plan to promote the beef industry at the Ohio State Fair. The Cattlewomen at that time felt the need to have something at the fairgrounds. The plan was to serve cattle producers as well as fairgoers with a quality product showcasing beef,” said Jackie Murray, of Greene County, who currently owns J&J Steak Barn with her husband, Jim. “Bob Wright had been very active promoting the cattle industry in Ohio. Bob was the owner and operator of a feedlot as well as a past president of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. They had really done a lot for bringing about awareness of the cattle industry here in Ohio. Jim and I had helped Bob and Betty for a couple of years at the Ohio State Fair. They were famous for their ribeyes. Jim and I were volunteers. The history of the steak barn has revolved around volunteers.”

Jim and Jackie Murray have operated the Steak Barn for nearly 30 years.

By the early 1990s, it was time for the Steak Barn to transition, at least in the estimation of the Wrights.

“In 1991, after a successful year promoting beef, the Wrights wanted to sell the Steak Barn after the Farm Science Review, their last venue of the year. They approached Jim and I and we said, ‘No we don’t think so. Not at this time. Maybe later.’ Bob had already set a price and he said ‘We just can’t do it anymore. We are just going to bring it to your place.’ That is the way it came here,” Murray said. “From there, we went to all the venues Bob and Betty had gone to, including the Ohio State Fair. And we started building on it by adding more events like the Beef Expo and Spring Dairy Expo.” 

After 29 years with the Murrays, the Steak Barn is again ready for a transition. All equipment used to serve at the Steak Barn and the Ohio State Fair Food Pavilion was offered for auction by Bonnigson & Associates on Dec. 7, 2021 at 10:37 a.m. live and online simulcast. Visit www.bonnigson.com for complete details. 

It is with mixed emotions that the Murrays are moving on, because they truly enjoyed their time in the Steak Barn. It experienced significant growth during their tenure.

“We were out one year in 2020, so we worked with the Cattlemen for 28 years. It has grown considerably. The Cattlemen always dictated the quality of the products according to their specs and we tried to improve on that every year. The lines grew and I think everyone was pleased,” Murray said. “Early on we also tried adding a second location in the round transportation building at the Ohio State Fairgrounds. We worked with the Ohio Exposition Commission and the Ohio agricultural commodities, and the Ohio Food Pavilion was created. Then, not only did the Cattlemen do well at the one location, now we were doing exceptionally well with a second location where we extended the menu options.” 

In 2019, the Steak Barn sold over 4.5 tons of meat and 5.5 tons of potatoes at the Ohio Beef Expo, Ohio Spring Dairy Expo, Ohio State Fair, Sandusky County Fair, and Farm Science Review. A significant challenge though, in recent years, has been the escalating costs of the product sold at the Steak Barn and the Food Pavilion.

“Pricing is a major issue right now. The prices are out of sight. We do serve a quality product and our producers are producing a quality product, but everything is going up. We use choice or better ribeyes. I remember when the box price for ribeyes by the case was $4.95 a pound. That seemed like a lot back then, and it was when you were writing those checks. Then it went to $7.95 and I was beside myself,” she said. “After we purchase the meat, it then goes to our processor where the patties are made and the ribeyes are cut. Excess fat is trimmed from the ribeyes and our loss is about 15% to 20%. Prior to the 2021 Ohio State Fair the meat order was placed, and the box price for ribeyes was $14.40 a pound.

“The Ohio Cattlemen’s Association is working with the National Cattlemen’s Association to better understand the escalating cost of our quality product and are diligently working to balance the profitability between our packers and producers so we still be able to pass on a quality product at an affordable price to consumers.” 

Murray sees the challenges for the next owner of the Steak Barn, but also tremendous potential. Through nearly three decades, the Murrays have had the opportunity to work with many wonderful volunteers and share great memories in the Steak Barn and the Food Pavilion. 

“This was something I truly loved. I think so much of our volunteers. Working with the Ohio Cattlemen’s volunteers, the FFA groups, and the various other groups that volunteered, while providing a quality product, the Steak Barn and the Food Pavilion have continued to grow through the years,” Murray said. “We will miss hearing those stories from the young people. We’ll miss seeing the regular volunteers who would come in every year. There are so many memories. We laughed with those people and we cried with those people. We lived it and we loved it. I can only hope that throughout the years the void I will experience may become a great opportunity for the new owners and the Ohio Cattlemen’s to take the reins and lead us forward.”

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