SCHMECKFEST TO ROLL OUT DRIVE-THRU STARTING FRIDAY
Kathy Kleinsasser admits it’s been strange not making plans for Schmeckfest in the way that is typical.
Normally, volunteers would be gearing up to serve a hot German meal to several thousand guests over four nights, a team of actors and their production crew would be putting the finishing touches on the Schmeckfest musical and, this week, the Freeman Academy campus would be abuzz with workers anticipating the arrival of guests from near and far, with organizers worrying about what the early-week snow would mean for the state of the campus.
Instead, Kleinsasser and others associated with Schmeckfest and Freeman Academy are focusing on what will be the second Schmeckfest Drive-Thru, which will be held from 1 to 6 p.m. the next two Fridays and Saturdays, March 19-20 and 26-27.
Those who have ordered online may pick up their orders outside the north bay of the Freeman Academy maintenance building at that time, where both sausage and Country Kitchen items will be available.
Those who have not preordered may purchase whatever items are left on a first-come, first-served basis.
The drive-thru is an alternative to the festival that celebrates the Germans From Russia heritage that, up until last year, had been held for 61 consecutive years.
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, prompted organizers to postpone, and eventually cancel, the 2020 Schmeckfest as planned, but they improvised with the drive-thru concept. And on March 20, 21, 27 and 28 — the dates that the 62nd annual Schmeckfest was to be held — guests could buy and take home some of the festival’s most popular food items curbside.
The drive-thru returned on June 23 along with a hot, prepackaged Schmeckfest meal for take-home.
“Once we decided we couldn’t have Schmeckfest again, we immediately said we had to have another drive-thru,” said Kleinsasser, a longtime festival volunteer who again serves as president of the Freeman Academy Auxiliary — the founding and governing body behind Schmeckfest. “It went so well last year, why not give people an opportunity again?
“This time of year, people are thinking, ‘I want poppy seed, I want fruit pockets or sausage,’” she continued. “People like to load up their freezers, so this was an automatic.”
One of the big differences in 2021 is the push for online ordering. While that was an option last year, organizers didn’t have much time to promote and streamline it. This year, those who want to purchase items like sausage, cheese pockets, kuchen, noodles and other Country Kitchen items have been asked to do so — and pay for them — at schmeckfest.com. Items that have been sold out have been taken down from the online store.
The system of ordering/payment/processing should expediate the drive-thru process and help reduce the amount of time people are sitting idle in their vehicles.
“We hope so,” said Kleinsasser, who noted that last year was challenging because there was some confusion over who had ordered online, who had paid and who had not, which slowed down the process.
“We just weren’t set up to do both and we learned a lot,” she said. “I think this year it will go a lot smoother, but we’ll see.
“We’re still learning.”
Of all the traditional food sold at Schmeckfest, none may be more popular than sausage.
Les Rensink, who has worked with sausage-making and sales for 30 years and has co-chaired the demonstration for most of those years, says sausage can be purchased both online and on site. With the ability for pre-orders, he doesn’t know how much of the 6,700 lbs. of sausage will be available to those who did not order ahead of time, either through schmeckfest.com or by calling.
“We don’t know; we never know,” said Rensink, who co-chairs the sausage committee with Jon Graber and Duane Ries. “Obviously the preorders will be a priority.”
He also said the 6,700 lbs. being prepared this week is similar to the amount made and sold last year. Most of that was purchased at the drive-thru, with an estimated 600 lbs. left over and sold later.
Rensink is encouraging people to place their orders ahead of time, but also invites those who have not to come to the drive-thru anyway to buy whatever may be still available.
“Patience is appreciated,” he said. “If there’s a long line, know that we’ll do our best.
“If we don’t get a line,” Rensink added, “it’s a bust.”
Kleinsasser also said those who have not placed an online order are welcome to take advantage of the drive-thru, although availability could be limited.
“You might get something or you might not,” she said, noting that preorders are obviously the priority. “We just have to keep tabs on the inventory.”
Past, present, future
Kleinsasser said officials were pleased with how well the drive-thru went last year, and also noted how well the Schmeckfest curbside meal was received later in June, and that organizers are brainstorming about whether to do that again, too.
“But that’s just talk,” she said.
As for preparation for the drive-thru this weekend and next, Kleinsasser says the planning and response has been outstanding.
“It’s going really well,” she said. “The amount of food people are willing to bake has been amazing. We did call people, too, but the number of those who just volunteered to bring something has been fantastic.”
Kleinsasser suspects the past year of uncertainty and isolation has prompted a large number of people to take part in the process. While the turnout for the cheese pocket workdays on Feb. 26 and 27 and the kuchen-making on March 5 and 6 was great — volunteers made 200 dozen cheese pockets and 500 kuchens during those four days — others chose to contributed by making baked goods at home. Two hundred fifty poppy seed rolls, for example, came from outside those workdays.
“People are stuck at home, and if they can bake, I think they’re happy to be doing this,” Kleinsasser said, noting that’s particularly impressive because fewer and fewer people know how — or are capable of — making these specialty items.
She also said organizers chose to limit what is being offered to the more popular ethnic items as opposed to what one might find at more traditional bake sale.
“That makes it easier to plan and put on an order form,” Kleinsasser.
This week, volunteers are finalizing the details of who and how many people will be needed to staff the drive-thru; sausage-making was scheduled to begin Wednesday. Those who want to drop off baked goods may do so at the maintenance building from 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 19 and from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Friday.
Kleinsasser said absolutely no sales or pick-ups are available during these times.
As for what Schmeckfest will look like beyond 2021, Kleinsasser says there have been no conversations about what long-term impact the pandemic could have on the festival.
“When the vaccinations are complete maybe things will start going back to normal,” she said.