LEWISBURG — Buttressed by breezy but beautiful weather, droves of sweets-seekers swarmed downtown shops during Saturday's 11th annual Chocolate Festival.
"Having this many people in town and having fun is a good thing for our community," said Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester, clad in his traditional Chocolate Festival finery — a Willie Wonka costume, complete with top hat.
There were indeed thousands of people filling the streets and lining up to enter stores, galleries, eateries and watering holes in search of tasty morsels of chocolate.
As usual, the longest line snaked out into the street from Harmony Ridge Gallery, where a stunning chocolate showpiece created by Greenbrier Sporting Club executive pastry chef Amy Mills and her culinary team offered a feast for the eyes. Boasting an array of vivid colors, chocolate panels that mimicked stained glass windows depicted iconic Mountain State scenes such as the New River Gorge Bridge, The Greenbrier springhouse and the state seal.
Just behind the display — which was titled "West Virginia Landmarks Showcase" — was a large table bearing the gallery's tasting treats. Also created by the Sporting Club team were Smooth Ambler Bourbon caramel & black walnut chocolate ganache cups and apple butter tarts with spiced white chocolate mousse.
Both the showcase and the treats captured the notice of Lewisburg residents Pat and Cliff Baker, who had in the festival's first two hours sampled offerings from several of the nearly 35 vendors scattered around town.
A Chocolate Festival veteran, Pat Baker said while Harmony Ridge's treats were their favorites so far, the French Goat's chocolate mousse with sweet corn panna cotta, Old Scout Whiskey caramel and chocolate crumble came in a close second.
Cliff Baker also threw in a vote for the French silk tartlet prepared by The Bakery on Court Street.
Traveling to the festival as a group for a third straight year were some 25 members of the Maynor Freewill Baptist Church in Beckley. Wearing matching t-shirts, the friendly folks said the best part of the annual excursion to Lewisburg is the fellowship they enjoy along the way.
But they also agreed that the chocolate adds to the experience.
"We all pick out our favorite treat," said Lisa Brown, wife of the church's pastor.
Brown said her favorite is the chocolate-covered strawberries that are a festival mainstay, while other group members called out their preferences for Shoney's hot fudge cake, salted caramel treats and something called a "chocolate caramel bomb" that could be found this year at Stonehill Realty, courtesy of LDS Missionaries.
The Lewisburg Chocolate Festival isn't just about indulging in sweets or welcoming spring.
The festival also raises funds for United Way of the Greenbrier Valley, the Greenbrier Humane Society, HospiceCare and the many nonprofit organizations that serve as vendors. In addition, a significant number of the people that pour into downtown in search of chocolate make purchases in Lewisburg's shops and galleries, eat lunch in local restaurants and take the opportunity to become more familiar with what "America's Coolest Small Town" has to offer.
"Chocolate Festival is the kickoff of the season," said Tamera Pence, president of Lewisburg's Downtown Business Association (DBA). "It's when all our friends and family start to enjoy our town once more."
Pence's shop, Bella the Corner Gourmet, marked its seventh anniversary with the start of Saturday's Chocolate Festival.
"We're sort of a mini-department store for kitchen connoisseurs," Pence described the artfully-arranged but compact shop that specializes in all things culinary. "West Virginia-driven products are our most popular items," she said.
On Saturday, shoppers could choose from among samples of Jcoco Chocolates as they browsed Bella's shelves.
Just up the street, at the new location of WV Fine Artisans Gallery, students participating in Greenbrier East High School's French Exchange program sold Eiffel Tower pops and chocolate-covered pretzels as a fundraiser for their spring 2018 trip to France.
While in the European nation, the students will live with local families and attend school, GEHS French teacher Liz Daigle noted. Next year's trip will be the fourth student exchange between the Greenbrier County school and a school in central France, Daigle said. Students from France will soak up the ambience in West Virginia during an October visit.
"Both communities are in mountainous areas," the teacher explained. "It's a rural to rural kind of thing. It's very comfortable for the students that way. They're really making connections."
United Way executive director Erin Hurst emphasized the way in which the festival helps groups like Greenbrier East's French Exchange and shop owners like Pence and others in the DBA. This year's more felicitous weather brought out many more people compared to last year's snow-stunted crowd, doubtlessly expanding the amount of funds raised.
"This is leaps and bounds better than last year," Hurst bubbled. "We're very pleased with the turnout. It means more reimbursement for the vendors and more funding for United Way programs."
With a twinkle in her eye, she added, "I thanked Mother Nature this morning."
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