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HonFest to celebrate 20th year June 14-15

"I'm a marketing person by trade," said Denise Whiting. "That's what I do."

It helps explain how Whiting came to found HonFest in 1994. Whiting used to work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, used to be a real estate agent and used to run a catering business out of her house before opening her restaurant, Cafe Hon, on The Avenue in Hampden in 1992.

That spring, she came to work at the 1-month-old eatery and found it in the middle of a festival with pit beef stands.

Her marketing skills kicked in.

"I figured I had to do something."

The next year, she sold sandwiches at the festival, and the year after, she parlayed a childhood love of beauty pageants into the Baltimore's Best Hon Contest. A waitress made a poster for it, which Whiting plastered around town.

"I wasn't sure anyone was going to show up, but we had 5-6 contestants," including her sister, she said. She hired a 15-piece big band. State Del. Maggie McIntosh was one of the contest judges.

Kelly Conway, a former forklift operator competing under the moniker Stella Gambino, won the contest as 200 to 300 people watched, including the media.

"Paparazzi out of the gate," Whiting said. "It lasted at least six minutes."

By year three, merchant Susannah Siger was hosting Beach Bingo.

"We just kept doing fun, crazy things," Whiting said.

Regional buzz

The rest, as they say, is history — two decades of history. That early festival is long gone, but the Best Hon contest has morphed into HonFest, now a two-day festival with Hon contests for all ages, live music on three separate stages, and the run of the blocked-off Avenue, plus part of Chestnut Avenue.

It's a marketer's dream with regional cache.

HonFest will observe its 20th year June 14-15, with 66 vendors and thousands of people expected to descend on The Avenue for what Whiting calls "family-friendly fun" and free admission.

She can't really say if there was a year that HonFest really took off.

"It's always had a life of its own," she said.

The fun, crazy stuff comes and goes, from Spam bowling of years past to best mustache, beehive and Mashed Potato dancing contests, as well as races in which waiters and waitresses run around carrying full trays.

This weekend, artist Stefan Hauswald, who did the Skatepark of Baltimore mural, will spend HonFest doing another mural on the side of the M&T Bank building on The Avenue. It's planned as an interactive event, "if you want to grab a paint brush," Whiting said.

The constants of HonFest will be well-represented, with women and some men dressed up as hons, sporting beehive hairdos, cats eye glasses and pink feather boas in homage to the working women of Baltimore, affectionately known as hons (short for honey).

It being an election year, expect a few politicians and campaign workers to mingle with the crowds. Whiting also expects Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to post.

"The mayor always shows up," Whiting said. "I always try to get my picture taken with her."

When asked to name-drop celebrities who have strolled the street on HonFest, Whiting insists that everyone who shows up is a celebrity.

"That's the beauty of HonFest," she said. "You can be that alter ego. One hundred people will want to take your picture, at least."

Spilling out

Also starring at HonFest are participating merchants.

Some have grumbled over the years that the festival draws more traffic than foot traffic, but Whiting, whose own restaurant turned over 2,000 customers in two days last year, said more local retailers are learning to use HonFest to their advantage.

"Merchants figure out over time how to make it work for them," she said.

"There are service businesses that don't immediately do well when the neighborhood is shut down," said Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.

But he said those who "spill out" and sell food and merchandise on the sidewalk or in the middle of the street do better business.

"The more people who participate, the more fun it is for everybody involved."

One who does is Debi Bell-Matassa, who owns the restaurant Alchemy with her husband, Michael, and is participating in HonFest for the third year.

"The first year, we didn't know what to make of it," she said, and remembers thinking, "My customers can't get in here. I am not a happy merchant."

But she said she came to realize, "You can't fight it. You have to find some way to make it work."

The couple's solution? They sell crab cakes and chorizo burgers on the street every year. And it has proved to be good for business. Last year, they did "good, solid numbers," equaling their average weekend sales for diners in the restaurant — plus, they made a small mint on the street sales.

"I did a week's worth of sales just on burgers and crab cakes," Bell-Matassa said. "Now, I wish we had HonFest a couple of times a year."

This will be the first HonFest for Hampden's new ice cream parlor, The Charmery.

"I can't wait," said David Alima, who co-owns the business with his wife, Laura. He said the couple is doubling its staff and will sell only eight flavors instead of the usual 16, to keep lines moving faster. They will also introduce a HonFest-themed ice cream sundae called Hon-dae. And among those planning to work is Laura Alima, who is pregnant — and due during HonFest, her husband said.

If nothing else, said Ray, most merchants are on board with HonFest, "as long as it brings people to the neighborhood."

Hampden itself is royalty at the festival. Whiting said people tell her, "I fell in love with Hampden at HonFest."

Long walk

Whiting plans to be on The Avenue by 7 a.m. on Saturday, for a WJZ-TV live shot.

And, HonFest director Lisa Davis, who last year walked 45.8 miles up and down The Avenue wearing a pedometer, expects to be at Cafe Hon by 3:30 a.m., to start the coffee brewing for restaurant employees and HonFest volunteers.

"I enjoy the silence," Davis said.

"For a moment," said Whiting, laughing. "A moment of silence."

It will be a long day, but Davis said, "There's only 24 hours in a day, so it can't be longer than that."

What's next for HonFest? What will it be in 20 years?

Whiting knows what she'll be — "75," she said.

As for the festival's future, she demurs.

"Since HonFest has a life of its own," she said, "you're going to have to ask it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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