HUNTINGTON — Who's hungry?
For residents of the Tri-State and beyond, a different celebration of food and fun can be found almost year-round, as Huntington offers an array of food-based festivals each spring, summer and fall. These include the Hot Dog Festival, Chili Festival, Rails and Ales Craft Beer Festival and the Italian Festival.
Tyson Compton, president of Huntington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said food festivals are a way to bring the community together, but they also boast large numbers of visitors from outside the state as well. The Hot Dog Festival alone totals about 16,000 attendees, while Rails and Ales has 6,500 visitors, but Compton said it is still growing and increasing every year. Rails and Ales was also recently named one of Southern Tourism Society's Top 20 event. In its seventh year, located on the waterfront, it is West Virginia's largest craft beer festival.
Compton said food festivals are a way to showcase Huntington and Cabell County.
"We want people when they visit to have had a good time and had a good experience, because then they're going to go back to their homes, their cities and states and hopefully say nice things about our area," Compton said. "And they will have such a good time that either they will return themselves, or they will tell people about it who will want to come and experience that for the first time. It's a great way to showcase our area and what we have in a positive light."
Compton said one reason food festivals became so popular in the region is because once the Tri-State Regatta was no more, food festivals filled the role left behind by that event.
"They would have this big event in the Tri-State area," Compton said. "That was very popular for a while, and then that went away. When that went away, people started looking at what would replace it. I'm not sure that it was necessarily planned, but I think these smaller festivals started popping up to fill that void. And then they were well received."
Word of mouth is important, but the CVB provides paid advertisements in areas such as Ohio and Kentucky to inform potential visitors of upcoming festivals. At last year's Hot Dog Festival, Compton met a couple from South Carolina who visit every year. He said it is common for people to plan their visits around the dates of festivals, to visit family and friends as well.
Food festivals not only showcase local food with a fun environment, but many also benefit different aspects of the community. The Ronald McDonald House benefits from Chili Fest, with $19,296 raised for the organization in 2018 from Chili Fest's People's Choice competition. The Italian Festival helps Facing Hunger Foodbank, and proceeds from the Hot Dog Festival go toward Hoops Family Children's Hospital. Last year, the Hot Dog Festival raised $25,000 for the Children's Hospital. Greek Fest also benefits the local St. George Greek Orthodox Church.
"Some of these events cost quite a bit to put on," Compton said. "For example, the Hot Dog Festival, they're going to have whatever their costs are to put into that festival, but then they will gather sponsors. Then they'll have proceeds; they have vendors who set up and have booths. And those vendors have paid a fee to be on site there. So, once they take out the money to pay for the cost, what's left over goes to whatever it is they're benefiting."
Local businesses also benefit from and participate in food festivals, especially Chili Fest, Compton said.
"They have local businesses can participate by having a booth, and then they will cook their own chili. And it's a competition for true chili cooks to go on and advance in that category. But for local people who are there just to participate, it becomes a competition and being selected as the favorite from the community crowd. There's a theme every year, and some of the businesses really get into that theme and will decorate their booth, and they'll be in costume. And it's a way of them showcasing their business and promoting it but doing it in a really fun way and getting people's attention."
Food festivals aren't just common in Cabell County, though, as the city of Ironton recently celebrated its fifth annual Taste of Ironton festival, complete with 11 vendors, which is more than last year's event. Attendees were able to sample food from different restaurants and food trucks based in the city.
Putnam County has also recently seen an increase in various food-based festivals, such as cupcake fests and food truck events. Kelli Dailey, executive director of Putnam County CVB, said Putnam County's most popular festival is the West Virginia Food Truck Festival, which occurs each April and this year brought in 2,300 visitors. Eighteen food trucks set up at the festival, and local musicians played four hours of live music.
Dailey said the previous director of CVB and a member of the Putnam County Chamber worked to create the WV Food Truck Festival.
"They wanted to organize an event that attracted young adults that showcases a wide array of food trucks that are in our region and also showcases regional talent," she said. "We have a ton of family-friendly events in Putnam County, we're really proud of that, but we wanted to do something that was a little more adult in nature. They formed that event to try to provide an opportunity for adults to have fun."
This was the WV Food Truck Festival's third year.
"Each year the Food Truck Festival chooses a different local nonprofit," Dailey said. "The first year it was the Putnam County Farmers Market, the second year it was the Putnam County Animal Shelter and this year was the Sweet Julia Grace Foundation."
In the summer, the city of Hurricane offers Food Truck Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., from Memorial Day to Labor Day on Main Street. Each week offers two food truck and one dessert vendor, Dailey said. This August in the Valley Park will be the Cupcake Festival; this is the first time the festival will take place in Putnam County.
"I think people are learning to appreciate new and exciting flavors and like supporting locally owned businesses; those two things come together," Dailey said. "Taste the flavor of a place, and you get to try some new dishes that you may not have access to you at a chain restaurant. It's a great chance to try new flavors and meet new people in a fun atmosphere."
"People can be so different in many ways, but the one thing that we all share in common is we like to eat," Compton said. "And food over the last few years has proven to be a draw for people to visit a destination. I think it's the same thing with festivals. It may be something that you don't get throughout the year, but you're able to get it at this particular festival, and I think people are drawn to that. And of course, there's the whole fun communal aspect of being together in this group and sharing that common experience, which is fun for people."
Upcoming food fests
Hot Dog Festival: Saturday, July 27, at Pullman Square in Huntington
Rails and Ales: Saturday, Aug. 10, at Harris Riverfront Park in Huntington
Italian Festival: Saturday, Aug. 17, 4th Avenue between 8th and 10th streets, Huntington
Cupcake Festival: Saturday, Aug. 24, at Hurricane Valley Park
Chilifest: Saturday, Sept. 21, at 3rd Avenue and Pullman Square in Huntington
The dates for Greek Fest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church have not been set yet.