No matter their cuisine or signature dish – and there were many – restaurateurs from the more than 50 local establishments represented at this weekend’s Taste of Buffalo festival had one goal and one goal only: to survive the omnivorous onslaught.
In booths encircling Niagara Square and along Delaware Avenue downtown, veteran vendors and rookies alike worked feverishly to serve up enough spare ribs, ice cream and Thai chicken satay to placate the half-million festivalgoers expected to attend the 30th edition of Buffalo’s premiere summer food festival.
Vendors described the experience of staffing the festival as a culinary marathon where the preparation starts weeks in advance, demand almost always exceeds expectation, and the payoff is huge – but hard-earned.
Louie’s Hot Dogs, the Western New York institution best known for its footlong franks, has been a part of the Taste of Buffalo ever since the inaugural festival in 1984. To prove it, owner Angelo Turco, son of the late, great Louie himself, supplied a photo of his father working the first fest in an outsized hot dog costume.
With experience comes wisdom, and Turco was happy to share how his family’s restaurant has weathered the crowds for three decades and counting.
First and foremost, said Turco, “whatever you’re thinking of bringing, bring twice as much.” The amount of food Louie’s stocked in preparation for this year’s festival is proof of that bigger-is-better mantra. Turco expected his restaurant to dish out 1,250 pounds of sweet potato fries, 800 pounds of regular hot dogs, and 400 pounds of footlongs this weekend.
The 1¼ tons of product sold would set an all-time Louie’s sales record at the Taste, Turco said. If Louie’s does manage to hit its goal, the weather will deserve much of the credit.
“That’s always the key for this festival,” said Turco, adding that one rainy day can be the difference between setting records and just breaking even.
Saturday afternoon provided the classic summer weather that attracts crowds and boosts sales. Crowds moved elbow-to-elbow along Delaware under a blue sky as a timely breeze kept the 80-degree temperatures in check for the tens of thousands in attendance.
Across Mohawk Street from the Louie’s booth, another seasoned vendor described how inexperience can prove costly.
Patrick Ryan, owner of Fat Bob’s Smokehouse on Virginia Place, recalled his restaurant’s first foray into the Taste of Buffalo 10 years ago. That year, festivalgoers drawn by the aroma of Fat Bob’s hickory-smoked ribs gobbled up as much food as the restaurant had prepared for the entire weekend in the first day.
A decade later, Ryan and company know how to come prepared. The restaurant brings in extra help to man the 24-foot mobile smoker, where 1,000 pounds of pork and 500 racks of ribs will be cooked this weekend.
“It’s cousins, it’s family, it’s friends of family,” said Ryan, who planned to use the sales numbers up to about 4 or 5 p.m. Saturday to project sales for the remainder of the fest.
“The organization and logistics are really what you can get hung up on,” cautioned Ryan, saying that rookie vendors were bound to encounter difficulties like he did at his first Taste.
Across the street and a culinary world away from Fat Bob’s and Louie’s, a different kind of vendor was in the midst of its first Taste of Buffalo.
“We are getting slammed,” said Reggie Sidell, who was staffing the tent for newcomer Go Veggies Inc.
In contrast to the decidedly more carnivorous offerings down the road, Go Veggies serves up the vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free creations of computer programmer-turned-entrepreneur Genga Ponnampalam, whose products have been sold at local stores and farmers markets since 2001, and at a retail store and cafe on Bryant Street since May 2012.
Go Veggie’s debut at the Taste of Buffalo was part of a larger health-food trend, Sidell said. Usually, she said, “people see the word vegetarian and they don’t want to make eye contact.” But on Saturday, plenty of curious folks visited the Go Veggie booth to try one of two signature veggie burgers. Sidell said she had seen many people purchase halfsized “taste” portions of a veggie burger only to come back for seconds. “These are not your grandfather’s veggie burgers,” said Sidell, adding, “People are very excited about the food.”
Two attendees stood nearby, enjoying veggie burgers from Go Veggie. Kurt Erb, 26, of Buffalo sampled the spicy mushroom burger, describing it as having “a little bit of kick but not too crazy.”
Arin Dandes, 25, also of Buffalo, called the spinach burger – a strikingly green patty served on a wheat bun – “nice and light.”
“There’s a lot of fried food here,” she said, calling Go Veggies a welcome alternative to greasier festival fare.
Elsewhere on Delaware, another new vendor offered similarly health-conscious options. Merge, an Allentown restaurant specializing in sustainable, organic cuisine, served wheat gluten alternatives to the classic Buffalo chicken wing.
Sisters Eliza and Sarah Schneider, who opened Merge in 2009, admitted that their debut year had not gone exactly as planned. Their vegetarian, gluten-free oatmeal chocolate chip cookies – a steal at two tickets apiece – went fast, with all 300 cookies gone in 3 hours.
Peoples’ willingness to give health-conscious options a shot surprised the Schneiders.
“We had no idea how many people would be interested in vegetarian, gluten-free,” said Eliza.
Added Sarah, “I thought it was a pizza-and-wings kind of crowd.”
Luckily for Merge, the restaurant is located nearby on Delaware, allowing staff members to bike to the restaurant and return with plastic buckets full of cookies and kale to replenish their stock.
And in preparation for Day 2 of their inaugural Taste, the owners planned on burning the midnight oil Saturday night.