CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Saturday, the streets of Lewisburg will run dark — dark with chocolate: chocolate fudge, chocolate cupcakes, chocolate chocolate.
It’s the return of the Lewisburg Chocolate Festival.
Now in its eighth year, the annual partnership between the United Way of Greenbrier Valley and the Lewisburg merchants association promises as much chocolate as a mere mortal could reasonably consume.
Cindy Lavender-Bowe, the chairwoman and founder of the festival, said there’s something for everybody.
“You can find some really gourmet things to try, and you can also get some really great brownies.”
If you’re a fan of chocolate, Bowe said, the concept of the festival is pretty simple:
The members of the association host and provide space for chocolate vendors, who provide all the samples.
People pay for samples with pre-purchased tickets. Each ticket costs a dollar, and one ticket equals one sample. From the ticket sales, the United Way gets a big contribution, local businesses get foot traffic, and chocolate fanatics get as much chocolate as they can stand.
According to Bowe, the festival started modestly, but has grown steadily over the years.
“We estimate about 7,000 people come out to the chocolate festival,” Bowe said. “That’s what we’ve had the past two years.”
How many people will actually come to Lewisburg on Saturday nobody can say.
Many of the individual businesses are hoping for a big day.
“It started off with most everyone trying to get to 100 samples,” she said. “Now, we have some places that are shooting for 2,000.”
That’s a lot of chocolate, but Bowe strongly recommended getting tickets in advance online.
“We’ll have a few tickets available at the office the day of the festival,” she said, but she added that it might not be that many. They often sell out.
Bowe explained that tickets are typically sold through the website until Thursday, with whatever tickets remaining being offered first come, first served on Saturday at 10 a.m. in Lewisburg.
“They go fast.”
For this festival, she said there would be approximately 35,000 individual servings of chocolate, available at around 30 different locations around Lewisburg. Some locations have partnered with outside chocolatiers and candy companies, but many are made in-house or come from local sources.
“Really, only a handful comes from out of state,” she said.
Varieties of chocolate, chocolate confections and even chocolate-inspired delights range from familiar staples like candies and brownies to chocolate beer and salsa.
“We have a new business in Lewisburg called The Pepper Shack,” Bowe said. “They’re a spice company and they’re going to be offering a chocolate and pepper salsa with tortillas.”
A lot of the chocolate, she said, is the higher-end stuff. It’s not what’s usually found at the candy counter at the local grocery store. Nobody is going to come out just for M&Ms and red-box chocolate-covered cherries.
She said, “B. Sweet bakery, for example, is doing s’mores, but they’re doing them with handmade vanilla bean marshmallows.”
Some locations, Bowe added, will have more than one item available to try — with a few additional products for sale.
“You get the samples with the tickets,” she said. “The money for the tickets goes to the United Way, but some locations will also have products you can buy with cash.”
And if that weren’t enough chocolate, many of the local restaurants often get in the spirit of things by offering more chocolate on their menus.
“You’ll see a cocoa-crusted loin or a chicken dish with a mole sauce,” she said.
There will be enough chocolate in Lewisburg to send even the most battle-hardened chocoholic into a diabetic coma, but Bowe said the chocolate festival doesn’t actually encourage people to get a sample from every single vendor.
“On average, we figure most people get between five and seven samples,” she said. “But we do have a few who come and bring baskets and bags. They go all over town, collect them all and take them home with them.”
In addition to the chocolate, the chocolate and more chocolate, the town will have live musical performances throughout the day, roving entertainers and things to amuse the sugar-buzzing masses.
She said, “We’ll have clowns on stilts, a guy who’ll spend all day doing balloon animals for the kids, and a couple of bands, including The Wild Rumpus. They call themselves Appalachian Stomp Grass. We booked them our first year and they keep coming back. They’re just great.”
The festival also features a 10K road race, chef cooking demonstrations, a chocolate bake-off and a chocolate mousse eating contest.
“You do that with your hands behind your back,” Bowe said. “It’s a timed contest. You have to eat as much as you can before the time is up.”
The contest is one of the more popular events during the festival. Bowe said they have to draw names for contestants.
“I got in that one the first year,” she said. “I didn’t really do that great, but wow, I felt great after it.”
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5195.