The year of the drive-thru festival: Greek and Italian festival organizers celebrate success

The 43rd Annual Italian Fall Festa was modified to become a drive-thru only event featuring the signature foods of the festival due to COVID-19 restrictions for large gatherings. Held from Friday, September 11th through Sunday, September 13th, 2020 at Bella Villa Hall in Kettering, home of the John Pirelli Lodge #1633 OSIA (Order Sons of Italy in America), the drive thru version of the festa was an overwhelming success. Here's a behind the scenes look at the festa's food preparation and drive-thru operation. TOM GILLIAM/CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER
The 43rd Annual Italian Fall Festa was modified to become a drive-thru only event featuring the signature foods of the festival due to COVID-19 restrictions for large gatherings. Held from Friday, September 11th through Sunday, September 13th, 2020 at Bella Villa Hall in Kettering, home of the John Pirelli Lodge #1633 OSIA (Order Sons of Italy in America), the drive thru version of the festa was an overwhelming success. Here's a behind the scenes look at the festa's food preparation and drive-thru operation. TOM GILLIAM/CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

In the true innovative spirit of Dayton, two of the city’s most treasured ethnic cultural festivals pulled off another year of successful festivities, despite being in the middle of a pandemic.

Organizers for both the Dayton Greek Festival and Italian Fall Festa declared their three-day, drive-thru style festivals last weekend a big success, exceeding their expectations in a year when most festivals have been canceled.

The recipe for success? The people.

"Almost without exception, I would thank them for coming and they would say ‘No, thank you for doing this. We’re so happy and thankful that we were here.’ That really is what brought it all together,” said Brian Andzik, Italian Fall Festa Committee chairman.

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Due to restrictions caused by the coronavirus, both festivals had to shift gears and turned to a concept that had worked for them in the past — festival food to go. Both festivals have long had carryout components to their events on a smaller scale, and both turned to the food-to-go concept in 2018 when severe weather forced the cancellation of their events.

Last weekend, Greek Fest ran a drive-thru with advanced ordering online and the Italian Fall Festa accepted orders on-site. The Greek Fest processed about 2,200 orders, said Deb Pulos, the Dayton Greek Festival’s public relations coordinator, and Italian Fall Festa reported moving between 3,500 to 4,000 cars through its drive-thru, though organizers are still counting how many orders were taken.

“It was excellent really,” Pulos said. “We started on Friday with a couple of minor issues, and then really, all day Friday we were learning lesson after lesson all day long. By Saturday morning, we really had polished and fined-tuned and so Saturday and Sunday went basically flawless.”

The Italian Festa location was still decorated for guests making their way through the drive-thru line and a band played music as many cars honked with excitement between songs.

“It was an hour and a half (in line) in some cases, and even after waiting, people were happy," Andzik said. "It was amazing how kind and generous everybody was; it was a great experience. It just put me in the best mood.”

The 62nd Annual Dayton Greek Festival became the Greek Fest Express, a drive-thru only event featuring the signature foods of the festival due to COVID-19 restrictions for large gatherings. Held from Friday, September 11th through Sunday, September 13th, 2020 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton's Grafton Hill neighborhood, the drive-thru version of the festival was an overwhelming success. Here's a look at the drive-thru operation and gyro making process at the outdoor grilling area. TOM GILLIAM/CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER
The 62nd Annual Dayton Greek Festival became the Greek Fest Express, a drive-thru only event featuring the signature foods of the festival due to COVID-19 restrictions for large gatherings. Held from Friday, September 11th through Sunday, September 13th, 2020 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton's Grafton Hill neighborhood, the drive-thru version of the festival was an overwhelming success. Here's a look at the drive-thru operation and gyro making process at the outdoor grilling area. TOM GILLIAM/CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Credit: Tom Gilliam

Operating on a drive-thru-only basis gave both festivals the opportunity to improve their long-established systems.

“We’ve been running festivals for 62 years, and we have it down; it’s a machine,” Pulos said. "So this was very different and it was kind of like, the internal side of the festival was very exposed. So we actually will be able to learn from this, should we be able to have a full-on festival next year,” Pulos said.

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Italian Festa spent the first three hours of Friday adjusting its drive-thru system on-the-fly, so that by evening, organizers turned the one-lane drive-thru into two lanes that were double in length. Pulos said the Greek Fest team learned how to better keep tabs on its inventory, as it was crucial to keep track of online orders all weekend long.

Though the festivals made the most of this year’s circumstances, the crowds and traditional festivities were certainly missed.

But Pulos and Andzik said the experience made them confident that their events will be able to adjust to whatever the future holds for festivals.

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“This shows us that when you think outside of the box and you’re willing to take a risk, it can work,” Pulos said. “This can be something we could do multiple times a year, two or three times in the event that we can’t do what we want to do. ... We have several people in our (Greek Fest) community that are restaurateurs and they’re excited about how successful we were. So I will just say, anything is possible.”

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Andzik, on the contrary, said “absolutely no way” at the prospect of another similar event happening before the end of the year.

“Within the committee, we were having a contest of who would walk the most steps and I was over 32,000 steps three days in a row,” Andzik said. “It’s very, very hard work. The Festa is hard in any format but this was exceptionally difficult because this was unknown. ... That being said, we have another tool in the box now that if we needed this for some because of (bad) weather or something like that that we could switch gears a little bit, (just) hopefully not under these circumstances, but this gives us a little flexibility.”

Following the success of its drive-thru festival in August, the Greater Dayton Lebanese Festival announced plans to organize more drive-through food events for charity in the future.

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