Italian Fest Vendors Glad to Be Back, though Challenges Remain

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — On Thursday afternoon, workers at Shirley’s concession stand were already busy preparing and handing out their fare to the downtown lunchtime crowd at this year’s Greater Youngstown Italian Fest.

A welcomed sight for Diana Mullen, who owns and operates Shirley’s with her husband, Richard. The New Springfield-based concessionaire took “a humongous hit” in 2020 when events like the Italian Fest were canceled because of the pandemic.

“90% of our business was canceled,” Mullen said.

However, concessionaires like the Mullens have enjoyed a bumper year so far, as fairgoers flock to the events they’ve missed for the last year and a half.

“Everywhere we’ve went, it’s been busy,” Mullen said. “The people have been super excited to be out. Everyone’s been polite, happy. The crowds have been great.”

The vendor is famous for its Shirley Burgers – either a quarter-, third- or half-pound steak burger with homemade sauce, lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, pickles, grilled onions, peppers and mushrooms.

“And then we offer a spicy Italian sausage that’s one of the best in the state,” she said.

Kenny Moritz has seen record turnout crowds at events, he said. The supervisor for Richardson French Fries, a staple of area festivals since 1950, said the New Middletown-based vendor has enjoyed “a stellar year so far.

“It’s great to see everybody out and about. All the neighbors and friends coming out and actually enjoying one another’s company again,” Moritz said. “We didn’t know whether or not we’d even be open for this year.

“We’re ready for the crowds,” he added. “So come on out and enjoy yourself. Get yourself a hoagie, get yourself some fries. We’re going to have a great time at the Italian Fest 2021.”

Last year was difficult for all of the concessionaires, who relied on special events like the Fair Food Extravaganza and Taste of the Fair at Canfield Fairgrounds and other areas to make it through the worst of the pandemic.

Shirley’s set up at four junior fairs last year, Mullen notes, and set up roadside for three weeks straight. In addition to the Canfield Fairgrounds events, Trumbull and Portage counties held similar events, she said.

Grandma Lamanna’s saw all of its events canceled, said Lori DeChellis-Keich, who owns the stromboli stand with her husband, Kenny. In fact, the Ohio State Fair, for which Grandma Lamanna’s has a prime spot, is limited this year to just livestock and educational competitions.

“They couldn’t get the employees,” DeChellis-Keich said. “They couldn’t find the help, that’s why. Not because of COVID.”

Staffing is a challenge for Grandma Lamanna’s as well, she said. Shifts are all day, which makes scheduling difficult, she said, but it gets done.

“I think that if you’re good to your employees, they’re better to you,” she said. “They’re happy to work.”

Staffing is forcing Oh Donut Co. and One Hot Cookie to close some of their stores while employees operate their respective mobile units at the fair, said Bergen Giordani, partner with Oh Donut and One Hot Cookie. The company employs 15 between the two brands’ three locations.

“Ideally, we’d like to be around 25 for the summer fairs and festivals season,” she said.

For its first year at the Italian Fest, Oh Donut will be offering made-to-order cannolis.

“You can come in and have your cannoli shell filled right in front of you, which is great. That way they don’t get soggy,” Giordani said. The mobile unit will also serve all the beverages found at the Oh Donut stores, including hot and iced coffee, coconut milk-based fruit drink Refreshers, specialty coffee drinks like frappuccino and lattes, “and then of course espresso, because it’s Italian Fest,” she said.

One Hot Cookie will continue its Italian Fest tradition of offering the Holy Cannoli Brownie: a brownie with cannoli filling, crushed cannoli chips and chocolate chips on top.

“That’s something that we’ve always done for Italian Fest,” she said. “It’s great to be back. It’s great to feel the energy. It’s great to see people out and about. Everyone seems excited to be down here.”

Vendors are planning for a busy weekend during the Italian Fest, which means stocking up on supplies. As it has been for restaurants, sourcing products has been a challenge.

Food suppliers are short on products for the stromboli fillings, reports Grandma Lamanna’s DeChellis-Keich, which creates a chain reaction in what the company can prepare for each event. But she expects things to be back on track soon and said she’s ready for a busy Italian Fest.

“The numbers are off the chart, and that’s great,” she said. “We can’t keep up with the strombolis making them, but that’s all right. [Customers] buy whatever we have.”

While vendors’ are focused on this weekend, they are looking forward to the Canfield Fair, which they all agree is the biggest event of the year.

“We gear up all season just to do the Canfield Fair,” said Richardson French Fries’ Moritz. During two days of the fair, he said the french fry stand will go through one ton of potatoes, 500 gallons of ketchup, about 1,000 gallons of apple cider vinegar and “loads of salt.

Pictured: The Thursday lunchtime crowd got first crack at the food vendors at this year’s Italian Fest.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.