The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts will celebrate 50 years come July 13-17.
John Dailey, “the Strudel Man,” has been coming for the past 34 of them.
Dailey, the owner of Heidi’s Strudel in Conneaut Lake, is the longest-tenured food vendor at the five-day celebration, which hosts more than 125,000 people in the downtown State College area. The Pittsburgh native remembers his first year at the festival — the spinach puffs, the broccoli-and-chesse puffs, the beef Wellington rolls, the scramble to make them fresh each day — and the challenges of stepping into what would become a staple of his schedule.
Before his first festival was over, his team had run out of the food they had brought with them.
“We didn’t know what to prepare for,” Dailey said. “It was unreal, but I survived.”
Dailey, 60, is now a veteran of the food vendor scene. Near the corner of South Allen Street and Calder Way, Heidi’s Strudel has prepared countless apple, cherry, cheese and apricot-almond strudels for festival-goers. Prepared fresh, the pastries have lassoed repeat customers, Dailey said, with their flaky twists. Each day of the festival, their aroma wafts from the 12-by-24 stand starting at 10 a.m.
Heidi’s Strudel also offers Austrian-style German-roasted almonds and smoothies.
“It’s a back breaker,” said Dailey, who does about 15 events a year. “But I enjoy what I do. It keeps me going.”
Rick Bryant, Arts Fest executive director, said the festival typically features six vendors each year. Vendors submit applications, which are then vetted by the committee. References, cleanliness and fit are just a few metrics whereby the committee judges submissions.
The type of food matters, too.
“There’s a fine line between giving people what they want and having six people with funnel cake stands,” Bryant said. “The income we earn from food vendors helps pay for all the free things we do, so there’s a balancing act there.”
For Harlan and Nancy Hanson, of Hanson’s Kettle Korn, Arts Fest is a favorite on their annual schedule, which includes about 70 “show” days at events. Harlan, 59, said he and his fellow vendors have built up a camaraderie during the 18 years he and his wife have been coming to State College.
They owe some of their esprit de corps to their oldest daughter, Melissa, whose sense of taste was only matched by her sense of adventure. More than a decade ago, she went to Sohan Dadra, the owner of India Pavilion, and brought some of his cuisine back to her parents. The two owners eventually met, bonded and have been friends ever since. The Hansons have made it a tradition to eat at Dadra’s restaurant on their first night every year.
With a simple order, bonhomie was born.
“Oh we do (owe her),” Harlan said from Bradford, where Melissa is a teacher. “She knows it.”
The Hansons, who hail from Sarver, have also sampled fare from Chan’s Golden Gate and Chesapeake Diversified Foods, two other returning vendors.
“We have made so many friends in the town,” Harlan said. “They bring us treats, which is just so amazing to us that people bring us stuff to eat and that we’ve made friends with the other businesses.”
Now Hanson’s Kettle Korn, located in Sidney Friedman Park, has become a tradition for customers. One year, the Hansons met a wedding party and sent them off with bushels of the sweet-and-salty delight. Every year, familiar faces pass by, say hi and trade stories about their children, who have a hard time choosing, Hanson said, among the 14 to 17 flavors of snow cones the stand offers.
“It just blows my mind that as a family, we could become somebody’s tradition,” Hanson said.
This year’s Arts Fest also features Nick the Greek on Allen Street and Nittany Avenue. On Penn State’s campus, the Berkey Creamery will also be open.
“This is a sort of specialized food niche,” Bryant said. “Just because you have a restaurant doesn’t mean you can be an outdoor food vendor or do it well. There are people who do this for a living, and those are the people who we need to find. Because when you get up to the head of the line, we want you to have a good experience.”
Lauren Hallowell, a Penn State senior, went to her first Arts Fest last year and sipped on an old standby: fresh-squeezed lemonade. For her second festival, Hallowell, who is interning with Arts Fest, is looking to whet her palate with more than just refreshments this time around. Desserts, she said, are a favorite.
A visit to the “Strudel Man” — and the beginning of a new habit — may be in order.
“I will definitely keep an eye out for him,” Hallowell said.
Her boss, meanwhile, has a different tradition.
“I always get a chicken on a stick,” Bryant said, laughing. “It’s not the festival until I have that.”
Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy