At Isabella's Italian Deli, the minestrone soup is already in the five-gallon buckets waiting to go. About 1,000 pounds of chicken is also in the cooler, along with cases and cases of escarole.

And this is just the beginning for Joe Caparco, the Hamburg deli's owner, and the rest of Isabella's staff. With its first Taste of Buffalo less than three days from now, Isabella's and Caparco are about to get very busy.

"We've been planning it for weeks now," Caparco said. "I feel like I'm running ragged just trying to put it all together."

It's the same at Torches Restaurant in Kenmore. Torches' owner JJ Richert has already had his wait staff stuff plastic silverware and business cards into napkins for the Taste of Buffalo. And come 2 a.m. Friday, thousands of cupcakes and cookies will go into the oven at P&R Bakery in Tonawanda, along with thousands of apple fritters into the deep fryer.

A glimpse inside the kitchens of some local restaurants shows it's a grueling process to get ready for the Taste of Buffalo -- and a mad dash to keep things going during the festival.

It's a major monetary investment, too. Different owners have said they've put anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000 into getting ready for the Taste of Buffalo.

They do it for one reason: exposure.

"If I had to wrap it up quick, in one word, it would be for exposure," Caparco said.

The 27th annual Taste of Buffalo runs from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday in Niagara Square and Delaware Avenue. The Taste brings back 80 percent of its restaurants for the next year, said Jim Fink, one of the event's organizers. About nine or 10 drop out each year.

It does take a lot to prepare, Fink said, but the festival assigns each newcomer a veteran restaurant to help it, a sort-of buddy system.

"The bottom line is that we have restaurant people talking to restaurant people, so they speak the same language," Fink said. "Until you go through the Taste, you don't know what to expect."

A running start

For the restaurants, getting ready starts weeks in advance. Lists are drawn up for what they need. Richert placed an equipment rental order a year in advance.

For some dishes, like the minestrone soup at Isabella's, the food preparation can be done in advance. Caparco bit the bullet and purchased all his vegetables pre-sliced, and his chicken prepackaged to cut down on labor expenses. Everything will be grilled and made the day of the Taste of Buffalo.

On Friday, Dick Sondel, his wife and the rest of the staff will start at 2 a.m. at P&R Bakery. The bakers will put on their white aprons and plastic hats and start to make the 10,000 baked goods they need.

Bakers will be putting layers of butter-cream frosting between sets of two chocolate chip cookies. The cookies will be stacked two sets high in a large brown box to be carried down to the festival.

They will make blond brownies and apple fritters, too. But their specialty is a banana walnut cupcake, which takes extra care to make. It's called a hummingbird cupcake. A secret Southern recipe, Sondel said.

"It's called a hummingbird cupcake, because when you eat it, you'll hum with delight," Sondel said.

And at Torches, it will take a Friday night party to get ready. Richert will close his restaurant at 10. The dining room will stay as is, and he will shuffle in his volunteers.

Each volunteer is handed a ladle, gloves and a five-gallon bucket of gazpacho, a rough puree of tomato and cucumber. Their job is to ladle the soup into the cups that customers will buy the next day.

There's sheet pizza, beer and wine sitting on Torches' bar to fortify them, and no one goes home until the nearly 50 gallons of gazpacho is poured into the cups.

"The way we roll, it turns out to be a lot of fun," Richert said. "Halfway through, you'll never think you'll see the end of it."

Morning inspection

The preparation is just the beginning. Most of the restaurants will show up at 6 a.m. Saturday to start setting up. They need to be ready to pass health inspection by early morning and to serve an hour later.

The day is long. They go until the festival officially closes at 11, then they clean up and officials check them out. Since Caparco lives in Hamburg, he rented a hotel room for the weekend. That way he can just roll into bed and back out of it to do it again.

It all comes down to the tickets. "Monopoly money," Richert calls it. The vendors don't run registers, so all they see come in are the tickets provided by the festival. They don't cash the tickets in until Sunday night, and until that exact moment, there's no way to know the weekend's profit.

"You could have a feeling to yourself that, 'Hey, I might not lose money on this gig,' but you certainly don't know if you're going to make a dollar on it," Richert said. Most of the restaurants in the Taste of Buffalo don't do it to make a profit there. They want exposure, to create a buzz that will bring more customers to their businesses. Veteran festival restaurants say they see an increase in business after their first year at the Taste of Buffalo.

That's exactly why Caparco entered Isabella's into the festival, and into the long hours that the festival demands.

Since he opened Isabella's, he has heard people ask why Hamburg doesn't have an Italian deli. But he hopes the Taste of Buffalo will fix the village restaurant's exposure problem.

"For the Taste of Buffalo, it's not about making money, it's about getting our name out there and to let people see what we do," Caparco said.