SCHMECKFEST OFFERS ‘TASTE’ OF FESTIVAL
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
For those missing Schmeckfest and wanting to get in on at least a sampling of the festival, the Freeman Academy parking lot was the place to be last Friday and Saturday, March 19 and 20 as the second annual Schmeckfest Drive-Thru unfolded on the west side of Sterling Hall.
For five hours each day, vehicles formed a circular line around the perimeter of the parking lot that, at the busiest hours spilled well beyond, to pick up sausage, kuchen and other Country Kitchen items.
The same will be repeated for a second weekend this Friday and Saturday, March 26 and 27 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
“We can’t have Schmeckfest, but at least we can have this,” said Meranda Van Ningen, development/marketing director at Freeman Academy and a member of the executive committee of the FA Auxiliary.”
“It was fantastic,” she continued. “The weather was wonderful — minus the strong South Dakota wind — and people were patient, really upbeat and excited to be getting some Schmeckfest food.”
The drive-thru concept was introduced out of necessity a year ago after the coronavirus canceled the traditional festival for the first time in 62 years and returned for a second year when it happened again in 2021.
This year, school and festival officials encouraged preorder sales through schmeckfest.com in an effort to streamline and expedite the process, and Van Ningen said the vast majority of sales came through those orders.
While there was a considerable wait during the early afternoon each day — about an hour at the most — most people were patient and understanding.
“Everybody was so enjoyable to visit with,” said Van Ningen, whose job was to greet the cars as they pulled up to the pick-up spot and visit with the guests. She calls it providing a “parking lot experience” while they waited for their turn to pick up their order, with conversations ranging from small talk with out-of-town guests to information about Heritage Hall Museum and Archives, which has extended hours in conjunction with the drive-thru — from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Van Ningen said people were friendly and patient.
“They understood the wait,” she said. “They understood this was still new to us and only our second year doing it, and not how we had wanted it to be.”
Van Ningen said after that initial rush, the line thinned out and the wait decreased significantly. After around 2:30 p.m., she estimated, it had been reduced to around 10 minutes.
“After we got past that initial rush, we were able to streamline it considerably, especially compared to last year.”
Once a vehicle had picked up their order, the next guest in line left Van Ningen and pulled into one of three lanes, each with its own runner to pick up and deliver their order. Those who did not place orders ahead of time could still purchase food that was available.
But there wasn’t much left by the end of the day.
“We did run out of quite a few things,” said Van Ningen, who said calls went out this week for additional items. “People are responding to that; we love the energy and people saying ‘yes.’”
Van Ningen was one of fewer than 10 people who worked the drive-up sales and helped fill orders, but that does not count the volunteers who worked with sausage, which was available both online and through phone-in orders ahead of time.
“We couldn’t have many more volunteers due to Covid restrictions,” Van Ningen said, “and the space was not really built for online inventory. I thought, for what we were working with, things were pretty fluid.
“Are there things we can correct? Absolutely. But I don’t know of any changes that we’ll make for the second weekend.”
And she praises both the volunteers who are working the drive-thru and the countless others who are providing food for this major fundraiser.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It really has been wonderful to see the community come together like this. We are so pleased with how many have come out to support this.”
Those who still want to place an order online for this week’s drive-thru may do so through Thursday. Items that are no longer available have been taken down from the website.
Andre Eisenbeis, left, and Dan Graber were among the volunteers gathering to make sausage in advance of this year’s drive-thru. This photo was taken Wednesday, March 17.
PHOTO BY JEREMY WALTNER