Church Efforts Fuel Food Booths at Festival of the Arts

Written by Terry DeBoer on . Posted in Local

fest food wide shot235Sandy Baird looked over her church's food booth Sunday afternoon while also keeping an eye on the weather above the Festival of the Arts in downtown Grand Rapids.

"Saturday was very busy," she noted of the bright and sunny skies the day before. "Today is looking more like (last) Friday," she added of breezy, overcast skies that already had shed a bit of rain.

Weather affects Festival attendance and attendance affects sales – a truism that she knows well.

For Sandy and her fellow volunteers from Wallin Congregational Church on the city's west side, it was another of 14 consecutive years they've hosted a food booth at the annual festival. At the end of the day Saturday, they were $600 ahead of last year's sales pace.

"Our top seller this year has actually been Dove bars," she said of the chocolate covered ice cream treat that sells for $3.50.

"We had one couple – they had to be in their 80's – who came here two days in a row for them."


Wallin Congregational is a church with fewer than 100 members. So marshaling a full crew of volunteers to work at the booth all three days is not a simple task.

"We do four hour shifts, and try to have between six and eight volunteers here for each shift," the coordinator explained. Her two daughters and several grand kids also help.
Volunteers utilize their church at 1550 Oswego NW as a staging and supply area. A van transports the work crews as well as food and supplies back and forth from the church to their downtown booth, which this year was on the Calder Plaza next to the art sales tents.
Wallin's food booth (one of 28 in all - at least 13 run by churches or church-related groups) served up its usual fare this year: ground beef barbecue, jumbo dill pickle on a stick, Dove bars and novelty ice cream, Coke products and bottled water.

On early Sunday afternoon Sandy advised, "We might run out of Dove bars." The Wallin church's booth had begun the weekend with 20 cases of 12 each.


The real work begins long before the festival.

fest food grill235Earlier in the spring Sandy prepares 200 pounds of beef barbecue in their church's licensed kitchen. She places the cooked meat in one-pound bags and freezes them. During Festival weekend they are brought downtown as needed and are reheated on a grill and served on fresh buns.

Buying in bulk from a meat supplier, she gets a good rate on ground beef. This year Sandy paid $2.35 a pound, well under current grocery store prices.

Some Festival years they have a lot left over (75 pounds one time, she recalled). On several others she's wondered if she should make more during the festival weekend.
But this weekend it appeared that some of the barbecue would go unsold. "We sell it to church members or use it for our church picnic. Or I've used it as a spaghetti sauce and stuck Ragu in it," she said.

The jumbo pickle on a stick ($1.25) was selling reasonably well. Early Sunday they were more than half-way through their supply of 600.


Besides purchasing all the necessary supplies (food, paper plates, napkins, tin-foil, condiments, etc.) each booth has to secure a temporary food permit from the Kent County Health Department. Health officials check on sanitary conditions and are sticklers for proper grilling and refrigeration/freezer temperatures.

The application for a food booth is complicated. But after an organization's successful first year of operation, the process is easier, Sandy said.

Wallin Congregational's food responsibilities are minimal compared to some of the larger-scale efforts. Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox and its noted Souvlaki sandwiches require refrigerated trucks to store foodstuffs and a huge area for grilling and serving. They usually get space adjacent to a street intersection, allowing for the long lines which usually are waiting for the ethnic food.

Wallin's task is simpler – their volunteers basically re-heat the sandwich meat and add it to buns, and serve ice cream and cold drinks from coolers. A gas grill and a small freezer on site is all they need.

Some of the larger booths net more than $10,000 profit in a good year. Sandy said Wallin averages around $3,000 profit, most of which goes to the church general fund, with 10 percent to the mission board. They set aside some of the money in a "seed fund" to be used to prepare for the following year's booth.

Among other churches which participate in Festival food booths: Georgetown United Methodist, Plymouth Congregation-United Church of Christ and All Souls Church.
This year's proceeds turned out to be below average for the Wallin Congregational food effort. Even though further rain held off until after closing time, Sunday attendance was down. They even had some Dove bars left over.

"But we still made a profit – for donating to our church, the mission board and some funds to start up again next year," she said.
Author Information
Terry DeBoer
Terry is journalist who writes for newspapers, magazines, newsletters and websites. His most frequented “beat” is arts and entertainment. He is married with two children and lives in Grand Rapids.

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