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June 9, 2003

The Business of Greek Festivals

After volunteering at our second Greek festival this season, we came to realize one thing. In a world that's all about the bottom line, Greek Festivals are all about business. Let's not kid ourselves, churches don't put on Greek Festivals just because they are looking to give people a chance to eat Greek food and listen to Greek music. It's a huge pain to put on Greek Festivals and some churches like St. George's and St. Constantine & Helen's only do it once a year. It's a huge gamble to put on a Greek festival, because you've got at most 72 hours during one weekend a season to make the thousands of volunteer-hours worth it. (The string of rainy weekends has made many people question how God can let it rain so much during a church festival weekend.)

We saw how much work a Greek festival could be staffing the gyro and souvlaki stand this past weekend. Never will you ever see Greek food shoveled out assembly-line style like this. There's no love when it takes about a dozen people to make your gyro sandwich in 15 seconds. Greek festivals will make members of a normally generous culture into a bunch of penny pinchers. Portion control, a foreign concept to most Greeks, becomes a mantra as quality control experts make sure you don't put more than five chunks of souvlaki and three slices of tomato on every sandwich. At St. Katherine's this year, they started the practice of having tzatziki in individual salad dressing carry-out cups ensuring that volunteers weren't giving out more sauce depending on if they found the customer cute or not. The old ladies of the church started scolding us for not putting enough meat on the sandwiches, telling us that the people might not come back next year if they feel shortchanged. But that still didn't change how much we'd be giving out, because let's be honest, unless you're doing something ridiculous like charging an admission fee, people will still come back year after year because it's not like everyone is having a Greek festival every other weekend. 

At the same time, you'd hope that festival customers would understand that the inflated prices that they pay for a sandwich or for a piece of galaktobouriko wouldn't be a big deal, because it's all going to charity. If you're going to a Greek festival looking of a bargain, you might as well buy a soda at a movie theatre or at an airport. At St. Sophia's this year, a few people complained about the size and price of the pastry. (Note: St. Katherine's pieces and prices are a lot more generous.) But we were shocked when one guy took a casual offer of "buy four pieces, and we'll throw in one for free" too seriously, to the point where he looked to get almost an entire box of pastry for free with an otherwise unimpressive order. At St. Katherine's this past weekend, one woman emphatically stated that she'd pay extra for more meat on her sandwich, which was even more insulting than asking us to put a little bit more on there. (And then she did it again on her next time through the line. We were so temped to give her nothing but burnt shards of the last of the gyro cone. 

Thankfully, Greek festivals always make sure to take care of their own. The old world bartering system of exchanging grilled meat for cold beverage and cold beverage for fried doughnuts always works to ensure that volunteers are well fed and satisfied. (Could you imagine if this system worked for the non-food vendors as well? "Here's a plate of loukoumades. Now how about you give me an 18K gold cross.") These cashless transactions never show up on the bottom line, particularly when gyro booth volunteers walk off with their own gyro-souvlaki-loukaniko sandwich, which would be like $15 by festival standards. It's funny because all the old ladies who work the indoor hot food line come outside and expect that the gyro booth hook them up with a free sandwich, but you never see a gyro booth worker go up to the inside food line and ask for free moussaka, or even try to trade anything for a moussaka. We guess there's some things moussaka can't buy.  For everything else, there's baklava. 


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