Organizers put a lid on Middlebury’s Chili Fest: Town instead will offer ‘Winter Fest’

MIDDLEBURY — Organizers of Middlebury’s annual late winter Chili Fest have decided to temporarily suspend the spicy culinary convergence, citing a shrinking downtown footprint and burnout experienced by some of the regular entrants.
Instead, the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) will replace Chili Fest with an inaugural “Winter Fest,” to be held at the Middlebury Recreation Park on Feb. 24, 2018. Plans also call for a community block party to be held in the downtown next April, according to BMP Marketing Director Karen Duguay.
She stressed Chili Fest boosters are committed to resurrecting the event, but at a time when participants become re-energized and after the two downtown Middlebury rail bridges have been replaced. Current construction forecasts call for work to be finished by 2021.
“The (BMP) board had some conversations and decided this would be a good year to take off,” Duguay told Middlebury selectboard members at a recent meeting.
Work on the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project is expected to resume next spring, so it wouldn’t have coincided with Chili Fest — usually held the second week in March. But Duguay explained the downtown footprint (for events) has already shrunk as a result of the temporary bridges on Main Street and Merchants Row. Merchants Row bridge is currently narrower, and one way. And both spans are on a slight incline, which makes them less user friendly for congregants at an event like Chili Fest, according to Duguay.
So Chili Fest will not see its 10th birthday, but will go into the deep freeze for a couple of years. The event will be missed by many. It almost always drew a huge crowd — several thousand people — and became one of the “top 10 winter events” in the state, as proclaimed by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.
The competition grew to six chili categories, including veggie, beef, chicken, game, pork and “kitchen sink.” Winners took home cash awards, bragging rights, and the privilege of duking in out in an overall winner category.
Thousands of people would converge on Middlebury to devour samples. Many stayed to shop and go to dinner. Event proceeds benefitted the BMP and the Vermont Food Bank.
Duguay noted while contestants were enthusiastic, the rigors of the cooking and competition were proving exceedingly difficult for some restaurant competitors who found themselves focusing on chili during the day of the competition, only to have to regroup for dinner service that evening.
“The vendors are really ready for a break” after nine years of participation Duguay said. “We didn’t want this to feel like a burden.”
Holmes Jacobs, co-owner of Two Brothers Tavern, was a longtime member of the Chili Fest organizing committee. He agreed the event had become increasingly challenging to enter and stage. It wasn’t unusual for larger vendors to spend $1,000 to $1,500 to cover ingredients, staff and other expenses associated with Chili Fest, according to Jacobs.
The time commitment and costs had been thinning the ranks of competitors in recent years, Jacobs noted. In its heyday, the festival was attracting 35-40 vendors. That number declined to around 25 in each of the past two years, according to Jacobs.
While it didn’t always make financial sense for Two Brothers to enter Chili Fest, the restaurant did so all nine years because “we really felt it was important to support the event and the community,” Jacobs said.
 Wanting to fill the void going forward, the BMP is lining up a Winter Fest event that will offer family fun at the Middlebury Recreation Park on Saturday, Feb. 24. Scheduled from noon to 7 p.m. Winter Fest will include such activities as a snow-sculpture contest, relay races and face painting, according to Duguay. Local organizations will be able to set up stations to stage their own activities and promotions.
“It will be winter-themed, but not snow-dependent,” Duguay said, though organizers will be keeping their fingers crossed for some of the white stuff for the sculpture contest.
“We are trying to keep it very manageable.”
BMP officials said the local Winter Fest is being patterned after a more elaborate yearly event in Rutland. The Rutland Winter Fest is a nine-day extravaganza that this year offered, among other things, a “Frost Feet 5-kilometer Run,” a “Freeze Frame Youth Film Contest” and some nighttime sledding.
Middlebury Winter Fest will include a “pub crawl” in the evening featuring appetizer and beverage specials at participating restaurants, according to Duguay.
Folks should remain plugged into the Addison Independent and experiencemiddlebury.com to learn more about Middlebury Winter Fest — and an upcoming downtown block party — as details become available.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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