The New Hampshire Jewish Food Festival – From Hot Dogs to Hamantaschen – a 25-Year Journey
The Early Years
Temple B’nai Israel (TBI), like all nonprofit organizations, was looking for a way to raise funds back in 1997. At that time, many temple members were becoming empty nesters, some had relocated anticipating retirement, and many were just looking to find a way to scale down their personal belongings. The suggestion of a rummage sale seemed like an idea that would provide members with a way to donate their gently used items while providing a way for TBI to raise some much-needed funds “win-win.” Donations started pouring in. They were organized, priced, and plans were in place to set up on the front lawn of the temple on Court Street in Laconia. As plans were being finalized, it was suggested that offering some food items might be a good draw. Homemade baked goods were set out along with knockwurst, a super-sized hot dog, and a drink, to the hungry bargain shoppers. Maybe the aroma of cooking hot dogs would attract more shoppers and those who were on the hunt for unique finds and treasures might linger a little longer. The new fundraiser was a hit – hot dogs and bargains on the front lawn paved the way for a larger and more varied selection of traditional Jewish cuisine. Temple members who owned restaurants or who were seasoned balabustas (professional homemakers) in their own kitchens joined the team and so began the development of the Jewish Food Festival we know today – an annual event that caters to lovers of homemade Jewish Foods.
This most unique event in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire was drawing huge crowds for one day in the busy summer season mostly due to an extensive marketing plan that was developed by member Barbara Morgenstern, of blessed memory. Barbara made sure that the news of the Jewish Food Festival was spread all around New Hampshire and even to northern Massachusetts and Boston. TBI was fortunate to have a gifted young artist, Jared Aronson, of blessed memory, who created the first unique graphics. Carry bags, t-shirts, and aprons were emblazoned with “I got â€œblintzed at the Jewish Food Festival” while the marketing materials spelled out “Dine Under the Tent” at the Jewish Food Festival enticing everyone to the festivities.
As the crowds grew so did the menu of food items and the rummage sale went on to become “The Nearly New Boutique” which offered some pretty nifty items for sale over the years including dining room sets and even a sailboat. The food menu had expanded to include blintzes, stuffed cabbage, corned beef sandwiches, and a bakery table filled with all kinds of goodies. While the Nearly New Boutique remained on the front lawn, the festival itself was held in the side parking lot of the temple with a few tables and chairs for those who wanted to schmooze as they enjoyed their lunch.
By the early 2000s, the festival now required a larger team of volunteers to coordinate the planning, shopping, cooking, marketing, and finances so the temple fundraising committee would join forces with the Food Festival committee to help accommodate the ever-growing crowds each summer. More patrons meant more food had to be prepared. As the popularity of the Jewish Food Festival grew, the lines would begin forming at the front door by 10 am for the opening at 11 am. By noon, several items were already sold out leading to disappointment and discontent amongst the customers and especially members of TBI. The first and easiest solution was to take the orders over the phone and provide a pre-order system for members of the temple. This innovation was improved and expanded from year to year. What the festival committee could not have anticipated was just how important this innovation would become in the not-too-distant future – 2020.
The Transition Years
From 2015 through 2020, The team began to look at ways to make the Food Festival an even better customer experience. In 2014 the “preorder” system was expanded from just temple members to all Food Festival patrons. Preorders guaranteed everyone would get their favorite items. As the demand for pre-orders grew, it became difficult to manage, so an online ordering system was built by a team member. This made it far easier to track and distribute. At this time, a credit card processing system was added to the festival.
The Lakes Region community had become enamored with the annual Jewish Food Festival but the difficulties of creating an outdoor restaurant, with serving and seating under a tent became overwhelming for the team. The decision was to bring the serving areas into the temple social hall, leaving the parking lot open for tents and expanded seating. This kept the food closer to the temple kitchen and gave the festival team a way to accommodate the demand for customer seating. In fact, by 2019 the parking lot served as a 250-seat restaurant for 4 hours once a year. Food was served inside, and the final purchase was made through a Disney-style queue with multiple checkout stations. Patrons progressed through the food stations, to the pay stations just outside the back door, to the outside eating area under two very large tents. Preorders grew exponentially with more people comfortable with the process and knowing they would not be disappointed by a sold-out item.
Then in 2020, the festival team and the entire world for that matter was thrown a curve, COVID-19. Food preparation always starts early in the year and products are frozen in one of the temple’s eleven freezers. 2020 was no exception, many items were already completed when the entire country was shut down. There would be no in-person Food Festival and no Nearly New Boutique, but a great deal of the food was already made. The team developed a curbside pick-up plan and used its website which was built for preordering. Customers so desperate for comfort foods immediately adopted the change and all the product that was made sold out online. Much of the processes behind the scenes were jury-rigged and manual since there was little time for planning. Everything, surprisingly, went off without a hitch.
In 2021, Covid protocols were still in place and there was uncertainty about whether they would be lifted and more importantly whether people would come to a restaurant with 250 of their closest friends, even if it was outdoors. So, the decision was to use the temple’s website and have all the food preordered and picked up once again. This time, however, the team was ready and had learned much from the previous year’s Covid affected plan. The menu was expanded to include the deli products and customer favorites that typically are made last minute and were dropped in 2020. Some of the processes were adjusted based on what was learned in 2020, but most of the order processing and picking was done with manual interfaces. The team knew it had the right formula when again the food sold out. It appeared that this format would be the future and some processes had to be automated as the sales volume grew.
The NH Jewish Food Festival in 2022 will continue to be online ordering and pick-up with several process improvements and menu enhancements. Order pick-up scheduling which had been a manual task before, will now be automated on the website. This will make it easier for customers to choose their planned pick-up day and time. Behind the curtain, the team built an order-picking module that will make the job of the order picker easier and more efficient.
The menu has been expanded to include Halvah from Israel, freshly baked rye bread from the Laconia Village Bakery, homemade Israeli salad, and improved recipes on several old favorites. More and improved food items and better systems and processes are on tap for 2022.
As the 26th year of the New Hampshire Jewish Food Festival approached a big decision was made to improve the access to the freezers and refrigerators and where they were located. One of the rarely used classrooms, closest to the kitchen, was designated to become the Cold Storage Room where all the refrigerators and freezers would be moved from the various locations around the building. There were 4 units in the basement, 2 units in the front office, several in the narrow pantry next to the kitchen, and a large chest freezer and refrigerator in the social hall. Almost all of the units were hand-me-downs from temple members and had seen their better days. A request went out for donors to help with the costs of the new refrigerators and freezers needed to replace these older units. The response to this request was overwhelming. Within a few hours of the email going out, we had donations for all but one refrigerator. Within 2 days we had the final donations for the remaining refrigerator. The new refrigeration equipment is more reliable and more energy efficient. The new location makes storing and retrieving the foods easier for those who are doing all the preparation. The final result on pickup weekend was astounding as the foods were easily picked and then packed for our customers.
It Has Always Been About the Food
Over the years there have been many changes to the Jewish Food Festival, but the consistent component is the focus on the food. Almost every item sold is made by TBI cooking teams in the temple kitchen. The recipes used were handed down from generation to generation. Each year recipes are tweaked by various temple members as innovative ideas brought in by new cooking team members whose grandmothers might have added a pinch of this or changed an ingredient. These innovative ideas get introduced to the discussion during cooking sessions that take place around the temple’s kitchen center island. The team is never satisfied with what they have done and is constantly striving to make the products better and the customer experience unmatched. They never lose sight, however, that it is about the food and if the products are not unsurpassed, then they haven’t done their job.