OFFICIALS CALL SCHMECKFEST DRIVE-THRU A SMASHING SUCCESS
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Schmeckfest was built on trial, error and voracious note-taking.
Beginning in 1959 and continuing in the years and decades that followed, records were kept, adjusted and amended as needed for the next group of organizers to come along. That way they would know, among other things, how much green bean soup was too much, how quickly the cheese pockets would sell out, and exactly when the volunteer crew needed to show up.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, that playbook has been largely useless the last two years.
“It’s been a challenge,” Freeman Academy Head of School Nathan Epp said of the past two years, as COVID-19 prompted officials to rethink what Schmeckfest looks like. “We’ve always joked about the notebooks that the auxiliary has that have 60 years of notes; we don’t have anything for this. We don’t have any notes on how to do Schmeckfest during a pandemic.
“That has obviously been a challenge for the auxiliary because this has been such a well-oiled machine.”
Given all of that, Epp is thrilled beyond measure with the effort from organizers and volunteers, response from the community and final report from what was the second Schmeckfest Drive-Thru held in lieu of the traditional festival March 19, 20, 26 and 27.
The 2021 event yielded $115,845, which includes a $50,000 match from Don Schenk, a friend of Freeman Academy whose father was greatly influenced by the school generations ago. That total is within $25,000 of what a traditional Schmeckfest makes.
“The entire process was an overwhelming success,” said Epp. “I don’t want to say we were flying by the seat of our pants, but this was a new thing and it’s hard to do new things. But they pulled it off.”
From the executive committee’s months of planning, to those who oversaw the preparation and sale of 8,000 lbs. of sausage, to Paul Ortman, Meranda Van Ningen and Adam Van Ningen’s management of the website and online preorders, to the labor force responsible for making and donating 2,000 Country Kitchen items, Epp said the team effort was nothing short of outstanding.
“All of our great cooks and bakers that we have in this community all deserve a round of applause and many of them are behind the scenes,” he said. “People coming through the drive-thru don’t see them. Me handing out cheese pockets to somebody was the easy part, and they thank me. But the time and effort put in by all those volunteers is what really should be recognzied. It was just fantastic.”
Kathy Kleinsasser, president of the Freeman Academy Executive Committee that oversees the festival, agrees 100%.
“If we didn’t have these awesome bakers that were able to make all this food, we couldn’t have done this,” she said. “They were unbelievable and so generous. They would call and check to make sure we had enough and some even said they would make extra and put it in their freezer in case we needed it.
“They were that wonderful.”
Kleinsasser’s also notes the effort put forth by Ortman and the Van Ningens.
“The whole idea of an online store — that is so new to most of us,” she said. “But they did a great job with that. It was a big learning curve.”
And she praised the sausage crew charged with managing and keeping up with one of Schmeckfest’s signature foods.
“They were really with it,” Kleinsasser said. “They knew they were going to run out so they gave an extra day to make more.”
“I can’t say enough about the whole team,” Epp continued. “It was just tremendous.”
And then there was the response from people of the community and beyond, whose support of the drive-thru — no doubt driven by a want for familiar Schmeckfest foods — not only helped them reach the $50,000 matching goal but exceed it.
“People were ready for something like this,” Epp said. “Just the response online and at the drive-thru itself was in some ways overwhelming. It was great.”
Schenk, an 82-year-old retired radiologist who today lives just north of Sioux City, told The Courier his $50,000 matching gift came largely because of the good cause he saw in Freeman Academy and the work it does for its students.
“The students who come out of Freeman Academy score well, so they’re doing their job,” he said.
He also appreciates the Germans-from-Russia culture on which the school was established in 1900 and the impact Freeman Academy has on his father, a 1914 graduate who was born in 1896 in a sod house, the oldest of 14 children.
“He did well by Freeman Academy,” said Schenk, whose father went on to be a successful lawyer in Tripp, serve as state’s attorney for Hutchinson County, and as a state senator from 1947 to 1955. “He came off the farm and didn’t speak English until the eighth grade.
“I looked at the school, I talked to the people there and I thought they would utilize these dollars well.”
Schenk said he began drawing from social security at age 65, worked until he was 71 and took advantage of investment opportunities in the stock market while drawing from his IRA.
“That pays dividends,” he said. “I’m the beneficiary of an American capitalist system and Freeman Academy can now be a beneficiary of that system, too.”
And he has, by the way, been to Schmeckfest.
“They’re always good,” Schenk said. “We always pigged out on all that good food.”
“Don Schenk has been so generous,” said Epp. “People understand that it’s been a challenging year for private organizations and they’re willing to give to help support us in this situation.”
Kleinsasser said reaching $50,000 in proceeds to take advantage of Schenk’s matching gift was a major motivator.
“It just gave so much more incentive knowing that everything was being matched dollar for dollar,” she said. “We knew we just needed to keep going and keep going.”
Klesainssaser said she is “pretty happy” with the overall result of this year’s drive-thru and “pretty happy it’s over.” Now, attention turns to the prospect of selling Preferred Pioneer Seating for the Schmeckfest musical in 2022 — assuming the full-scale festival can happen.
“We hope so,” she said, noting that the plan is to stage “Matilda The Musical,” which was to be presented in 2020. “We’re making sure that the show is available for those dates. We have not heard yet; program committee is working on that.”
Schmeckfest 2022 is scheduled for March 18-19 and 25-26.
“We’re all looking forward to being back in person and having our normal traditional Schmeckfest, whenever that can happen,” said Epp.