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Two foodie favorites drop out of Canal Fest of the Tonawandas

Canal Fest of the Tonawandas will offer a wide variety of food fixes beginning Sunday, but missing will be two organizations that sold ethnic favorites – pierogi and Italian sausage sandwiches – at the festival for decades.

The Renaissance Club won't be at Canal Fest with its sausage sandwiches with onions and peppers. Nor will Our Lady of Czestochowa church, which sold handmade cheese, sauerkraut and potato pierogi.

Both organizations elected not to participate in Canal Fest for different reasons. At OLC, which has an older congregation with fewer volunteers available, it became difficult to staff the booth for eight days. The Renaissance Club dropped out after receiving in May a seven-page list of festival rules related to fire safety along with notice that they would have to move their food tent to a new location and give up a shaded adjacent seating tent.

On social media, as word spread that these two regulars would not be at the festival, there were rumors about the reasons, some true and some false, but the commenters agreed it will feel like the end of an era without OLC and the Renaissance Club.

Canal Fest President Peter Chenier Jr. said the festival received notice from municipal fire officials in May that it must put additional space between cooking tents, which forced it to move many vendors from their regular spots.

He said that rumors about food trucks coming in and taking spaces away from nonprofits, and that the cost to participate was raised, are not true.

"It's really a safety thing. We don't want anyone to get hurt," said Chenier.

He said the rules allow a nonprofit that drops out of the festival to have a guaranteed space if it wants to return the next year.

Mary Bienko, second from right, supervises a team of volunteers making pierogi at Our Lady of Czestochowa Church in North Tonawanda on May 21, 2007. (News file photo)

That might not happen with Our Lady of Czestochowa.

"The biggest problem we have is getting enough volunteers to man the event for the whole time," said Kathy Kokanovich, director of faith formation at OLC. "There is all the prep that goes in before the Canal Fest starts. We need a team to prepare stuff here in our kitchen from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. all eight days and another team at the booth, and then we have to transport everything."

But never fear, says Kokanovich, church volunteers are still making pierogi.

The church will hold a pre-Canal Fest pierogi sale from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at the parish hall, 71 Center Ave. in North Tonawanda. No pre-ordering is necessary. The church also has pierogi sales every Monday from 10 a.m. to noon, September through May.

Gusto's Summer Festival Guide

She said they are planning other fundraisers to be held throughout the year to make up for the loss of revenue, which they did not quanitify.

Mack Argentieri, president of the Renaissance Club, said he wanted it to be known that lack of volunteers was not an issue for his group, which promotes Italian traditions.

"It's a family affair for some," said Argentieri of his club's annual participation in Canal Fest. "We have more than enough volunteers."

Argentieri said the Renaissance Club reluctantly decided to drop out at its June 14 meeting because the festival's new list of rules left it with many unanswered questions. Moving the club's tent to a location – which had not been specified by Canal Fest – could have meant extra costs for electrical and gas lines, he said.

"It sounds good – bringing in a gross of $30,000 at $5 a sandwich. But after expenses and everything going up, we are netting under $10,000," he said.

He said the club hopes to be back at Canal Fest next summer, after it has more time to work out some of the issues.

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