Vendors Concerned for Their Future At Italian Festival

WHEELING — While crowds gathered on a cool Saturday evening at Heritage Port, some vendors were left with empty booths, scratching their heads at a perceived drop in business at Undo’s Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival.

Meanwhile, others said they were doing well this year.

The walkway between food stalls was packed with people shoulder-to-shoulder by 5 p.m., with more congregating by the beer gardens on the north side of the festival. However, on the next row of booths closer to the river, foot traffic was reduced to a fraction.

John Wedell, who operates Diamond Jim’s, a stall offering a rubber band shooting gallery and wooden toys for sale, said rising costs to set up shop, combined with plummeting profits, left him unsure if he would be able to return in 2019.

“It’s not been like it has been in the past,” Wedell said.

“We’ve done really well at this show in the past, and it hasn’t been like that. … It’s really gone downhill, and the price of the place keeps going up. So when that keeps going up, and we’re not doing as we were five years ago, I don’t know if we can do it next year.”

Wedell has operated his booth for eight years, along with his wife, Mary. He said their primary customers tend to be children. Wedell said the rising costs for the festival came from a $350 spot, plus assorted fees and city licenses which raised the cost to near $400, before the other costs of setting up.

“Most of our shows, for two or three days, don’t cost more than $150 to $200,” he said. “But when you have a show more than $300, then you have the city license, and with a hotel for two nights on top of that, so before you even make a profit, you’re spending $600. If you’re not making $1,500 to $2,000, it doesn’t pay to do this. And we’re not. Three years ago, we made $1,700 on a Saturday. We’re not going to make that in three days.”

Another stall, Tootsie’s Indoor Play and Party Center, was making its debut at the festival. Even with price cuts and all day deals, owner Amanda Witter said she couldn’t attract a crowd.

“I put $800 into this, and I’ve made $75,” said Witter. “I’m going to probably have to sell it after this. … I think the times are just changing.”

“People just don’t want to spend money,” she added.

Along the main rows of food stalls, one grill selling assorted meats and other food also was seeing a serious shortcoming in business. One cook said he saw an estimated 50 percent drop in food sales over the last five years.

Not all vendors were losing out, however. Michele Fabbro, president of the festival’s Board of Directors, said many vendors, especially those focusing on Italian food, were doing well.

“The booths we’re in charge of seem to be thriving,” Fabbro said. “Undo’s is packed all day, every day. Our bakery is packed. Our wine garden always has a line. Our beer gardens are always busy. That’s what I see.”

Fabbro said the festival was aiming to focus on Italian fare, given the theme of the festival, but they still wanted to keep diversity in food options available.

“We’re trying to (focus on Italian),” she said. “The main reason Undo’s is up here, rather than us having a whole setup of Little Italy, is that it was getting to be a difficult situation. If it rained, it would flood, making it very difficult for patrons, and completely impossible for the people working the booths. We were very fortunate that they said they’d help set up a new Little Italy for us.

“It’s a new year, and it’s a growing year where we have a lot of changes, but this is the first year of it, and every year we plan to add more to it,” said Fabbro.

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