By biting into an Italian sausage, downing an empanada or polishing-off beef brisket, festivalgoers at Canal Fest of the Tonawandas may indirectly be giving to charity this week.
The eight-day event featuring a wealth of food and drink is a financial boon for community and nonprofit organizations, which use money generated by vendors to sustain philanthropic and neighborhood efforts.
About two-thirds of the projected $350,000 generated by food stand and kiosk sales during the festival will be reinvested in the community, said Larry Denef, president of Canal Fest of the Tonawandas Inc.
“We do it for the love of the community,” Denef said. “The love of the organizations.”
Canal Fest, based at 15 Webster St., usually takes place during the third weekend in July, but it touched off a weekend early this year to accommodate the carnival ride operator’s schedule. Forty-eight community organizations will be vendors this year, and between 180,000 and 200,000 people are expected to attend by the festival’s last day Sunday.
Several organizations are repeat vendors, with some, including Tonawanda’s Boy Scout Troop 600, returning all 31 years of the festival’s existence. The troop’s star menu item – roast beef sandwiches – has remained unchanged from 1983.
The troop operates at the same wooden bungalow that was custom-made for the event three decades ago, and the same troop flag hangs from one end of the booth. The approximately $3,500 earned from sales helps send Scouts to camp, said Assistant Scoutmaster John Bender.
“You can see people you haven’t seen all year,” he said.
Using history as an indicator, Tonawanda’s Elks Lodge 860 expects to raise $25,000 from dishing out meat-packed subs, including crowd favorite muffaletta, a salami, capicola and shaved ham invention.
The lodge’s work with military veterans and those with cerebral palsy will benefit from those earnings, said Tom Latko, the lodge’s loyal knight.
“The whole tradition, it’s part of the culture of the Buffalo area,” Latko said of Canal Fest.
Empanada sales allow Tonawanda’s Salvation Army to send children off to a weeklong summer camp, where they indulge their outdoor sensibilities and fish, camp and swim.
“A lot of them are from low-income communities and would otherwise be at home doing nothing,” said Major Nkounkou, commanding officer of Tonawanda’s Salvation Army.
Jeff Wojcik, a past master of the Ken-Ton Masonic Lodge, allocates time at Canal Fest informing passers-by about a culture that many assume is shrouded in secrecy.
“We’ve probably made a good number of brothers that have joined as a result of the Canal Fest,” Wojcik said. Sales of the lodge’s slow-cooked beef brisket go toward providing $2,500 in scholarships, he added.
Vendors line both the North Tonawanda and City of Tonawanda sides of the Erie Canal, with live music and entertainment interspersed among the food and rides. The festival is a chance for two communities on opposite sides of the canal to unite, said Chris Mobilla, vice president of the Union Hook and Ladder Volunteer Fire Company.
“Two separate towns, two separate counties,” he said, “and this is something that brings us together for a week.”