Thousands throng to downtown chili fest

MIDDLEBURY — Last Saturday afternoon’s Vermont Chili Festival proved to be the most popular in the four-year history of the annual event, drawing a crowd that organizers estimated to be as large as 5,000 to downtown Middlebury.
There, on a blocked-off Main Street, a crowd that swelled from the 2011 total of about 3,000 tasted the culinary offerings of about 40 restaurants, stores, vendors and nonprofit groups. In addition, they listened and danced to music, sampled a few other entertainment offerings — including kid-friendly face-painting, and a beverage tent aimed at the older attendees — and checked out sales at downtown shops.
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E.J. Bartlett, marketing director of the Better Middlebury Partnership — which along with the town of Middlebury helps stage the extravaganza — said feedback from Saturday was positive.
“In general, people were ecstatic,” Bartlett said. “Everyone we heard from said what a good time they had and what a great event it was … and there was amazing chili to taste.”
Most competitors in the chili contest — which had an overall winner as well as six sub-categories, beef, chicken, pork, game, veggie and kitchen sink — called Addison County home, but others came from around the state and one hailed from New Hampshire.
The Best Overall Chili winner, as well as the Best Beef Chili champion, was Burlington’s Bluebird Tavern. Cornwall’s Breadloaf View Farm, Leunig’s of Burlington, Addison Central Teens, the Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department, and Jessica’s Restaurant at Middlebury’s Swift House Inn also claimed category crowns (see related story for top three finishers and details).
Proceeds from the festival (which the Vermont Chamber of Commerce has for the past three years named one of its Top 10 Winter Events) will go toward the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund/Vermont 211. Entry fees of $3 for adults and $2 for kids were charged and allowed unlimited chili tasting, and T-shirt and beverage sales contributed to the bottom line.
Bartlett praised the organizing committee for doing the bulk of the preparation, and in some cases going above and beyond the call of duty. For example, she said, when it snowed late on Friday night, committee member Holmes Jacobs showed up on Main Street at 5 a.m. to start shoveling. 
The other members of the committee are chairwoman Lindsey Wing, Amey Ryan, Kim Cook, Nicole Reilly and Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger.
“With six people on the committee, I think it’s pretty amazing what they accomplished,” Bartlett said. “Throwing a party for 5,000 people is pretty tough work.”
A number of local firms helped sponsor the festival, and about 40 volunteers, including 20 Middlebury College students, made things happen on Saturday. Those working the registration tables may have had the toughest job dealing with the unprecedented turnout, Bartlett said, and often found creative solutions to keep the lines moving.
“I was pretty impressed with their initiative to make it happen, because they were getting slammed,” she said.
Some attendees commented on the lines.
“I did notice the long lines, and I wondered if people had an issue with that,” Bartlett said.
For future Vermont Chili Festivals, Bartlett said organizers might move all the registration tables to either end of Main Street rather than leave a couple in the middle. Other tweaks suggested by some included hand stamps instead of buttons handed out to visitors.
Bartlett said the high traffic meant buttons ran out at some tables, and organizers also had to run to stores to buy spoons, which as the afternoon wore on also became scarce at tasting tables.
“We were out of a lot of things,” she said. “I think the chili ran out, too.”
Ultimately, Bartlett said those sorts of problems are not bad ones to have — they mean the festival is drawing visitors.
And according to a preliminary look at zip code surveys taken on Saturday, although most who attended are local, a fair number came from outside the immediate area, Bartlett said. Among those were Gov. Peter Shumlin and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“It just showed what a vibrant town we have,” she said, adding, “I think it has become quite the destination for the state … which is pretty amazing.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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