Along the top of a back wall in Cafe Hon runs a strip of artwork referencing iconic images of Baltimore, from Natty Boh beer and the Orioles to Fort McHenry, Edgar Allan Poe, a raven and Domino's Sugar.
Lower down on the wall is a message about another icon.
"Countdown to HonFest," it says.
It's that time again. The 21st annual HonFest, an ode to the working women or "honeys" of Baltimore, will take over West 36th Street, The Avenue, on Saturday and Sunday, June 13-14. The festival will feature high-haired hons, feather boas, Best Hon and Little Miss Hon contests, a Best Mustache contest, a new oyster shucking contest, and lots of crafts, food and live music.
And this year, HonFest is teaming with one of the city's most iconic companies, the 93-year-old Domino's Sugar, which for the first time will be a corporate sponsor of the festival, joining veteran sponsors Bacardi and Heineken.
"It's something we want to be a part of," said Peter O'Malley, a spokesman for Domino Sugar's parent company, Florida-based ASR Group. "We're very Baltimore. They're very Baltimore. It's a good fit."
Downtown-based Domino Sugar will sponsor the main stage at HonFest, along with a trivia contest about the company. The sugar company will also have its own festival booth and will hand out sugar and cinnamon shakers shaped like bears.
The sponsorship is sweet for HonFest founder Denise Whiting, owner of Cafe Hon, HonBar and HONtown, and her longtime assistant, Lisa Davis.
"Hons and sugar go together," Davis said.
"We've been trying to get iconic businesses for years," Whiting said, citing McCormick & Co., makers of Old Bay, as an example.
Getting Domino Sugar, with its famed sign in the Inner Harbor, is something of a coup for HonFest and a promotional tool for the sugar maker. The company employs 600 workers in Baltimore, and 14 percent of the cane sugar sold nationally comes from its Key Highway plant, one of six refineries operated by ASR Group in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
HonFest is "really an advertising venue for them, and it's good will," Whiting said. "Sometimes, it's just about branding, getting your brand out there."
She said a lot of people take the Domino Sugar sign for granted and don't always realize that the company produces much of its sugar in the city.
"People see the sign but they don't understand there's still something going on under the sign," she said.
From sugar to shucking
The Domino Sugar sponsorship is one of two new partnerships that HonFest is touting this year.
Also new is a partnership of a different kind, the 1st Annual HonFest Oyster Shucking Contest, designed partly to help raise awareness of the Oyster Recovery Partnership's efforts to restore oyster reefs in the Chesapeake Bay. The festival is partnering with True Chesapeake Oyster Co., known for its Skinny Dipper oysters.
The shucking contest is Sunday at 3 p.m., and people can register for free starting Saturday during the festival.
"Contestants are to eviscerate 18 Skinny Dipper oysters at top speed and then present them in 'restaurant condition,'" according to a HonFest press release. "The winner is the gal or guy who presents them the prettiest and the fastest."
"It's not about how fast you are but how perfectly you shuck," Whiting said. She and Davis said contestants will be penalized if they tear the oysters while shucking them. They also said contestants must be 18, bring their own shucking knives and protective gloves, and sign a disclaimer, holding the HonFest organizers harmless in case of injuries.
The contest will be emceed by champion shucker George Hastings, who will also be one of the judges. Other judges will include Dale German, Tommy Chagouris, founder of Nick's Fish House in Port Covington, and Paul Schurick, director of partnerships for the Oyster Recovery Partnership.
The winner gets $250.
Organizers hope the contest will draw attention to the Oyster Recovery Partnership's Shell Recycling Alliance, a five-year-old program in which 200 participating restaurants in the mid-Atlantic region donate oyster shells to be cleaned and placed back into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The goal is to rebuild the shell base of natural oyster bars that are then reseeded with natural or hatchery-produced oyster seed, according to the Oyster Recovery Partnership's website.
"Oysters prefer to set down near other oysters," said Bryan Kent Gomes, special programs and outreach manager for the Oyster Recovery Partnership. "They know that if there are other oysters there, they have a better chance of living."
According to the website, Maryland has seen a steady decline in the amount of shell that it acquires from its Oyster Shell Purchase Program from oyster shucking houses and now also collects discarded shell from restaurants, catering businesses and seafood wholesalers.
Cafe Hon was one of the first restaurants to participate in the Shell Recycling Alliance.
"Denise is a big fan and vice versa," Gomes said.
More than 4,000 oysters will be shucked for sale during HonFest and all of the shells will be recycled. Representatives from the Oyster Recovery Partnership will be on hand to talk about the non-profit organization's programs and the need to preserve oyster populations in the bay.
The symbiotic relationship between oyster recovery and women with beehive hairdos is expressed in this year's HonFest theme: "Beehives, bivalves and beer," with the kicker, "Every year there's something new: This year's gonna shuck."
Beyond its environmental consciousness, the festival is altruistic in other ways. Even beer sales are partly for a good cause. Hampden Baseball and Skatepark of Baltimore will each run a beer booth at the festival and will get a percentage of the beer sales to help their organizations, Davis and Whiting said.
Whiting said it costs about $80,000 to put on HonFest each year with a core staff of about 25 paid staffand volunteers, and that the festival isn't about turning a profit.
"We try to cover the costs," Whiting said.
"We can pay our bills, basically," said Davis.
Part of their lives
A festival that honors working women is headed by two of the hardest-working ones.
Whiting, 56, of Kernewood, is the sponsorship seeker, and the festival's ambassador and impresario, whose duties include running the Best Hon contests and introducing the contestants onstage. Davis, 47, of Radnor-Winston, is the behind-the-scenes co-organizer and troubleshooter. She walked more than 58 miles up and down The Avenue last year, according to the pedometer she wore — making sure that the festival's nearly 70 vendors were doing all right and that they had enough change for their customers, one of the biggest problems the vendors have had during HonFest.
She also deals with merchants who pay to "spill out," by selling their wares on the sidewalks outside their stores. Before the festival, she anxiously watches the weather forecasts. HonFest has never been rained out.
Davis started as a HonBar bartender in 2003 and rose to manager. She still tends bar.
Davis has no interest in being onstage and said she has never competed in a HonFest contest. She describes the difference between her and Whiting this way: "I wear running shoes. She wears high heels."
"We've been doing [HonFest] so long, it's become part of our lives," Whiting said.
Last year, before the 20th annual HonFest, Whiting considered making it the last year for the festival. He thinking was, "Quit while you're ahead. It's exhausting [and] it's a huge commitment every year for Lisa and myself."
And she figured, "It was 20 years. Things don't last 20 years."
But she said the festival last year was so well attended, drawing a crowd of about 30,000 people, that she told her mother, an annual volunteer, "I can't stop doing this."
Plus, said Davis, "I need a job."
Now, Whiting has decided to stop doing HonFest when Davis gets tired of it. Either that, she said, or, "I'm going to keep doing it until the big hon sings in the sky."