The 14th annual Chocolate and Candy Festival March 7, 2015, in Bel Air had more than 1,500 visitors, according to Christine McPherson, executive director of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance. (David Anderson/BSMG)
Although there was still plenty of snow on the ground in Bel Air Saturday, hundreds of locals did not let that keep them inside any longer and they made their way to the Bel Air Reckord Armory for the 14th annual Chocolate & Candy Festival.
"It's time to get out and get downtown!" Christine McPherson, executive director of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, said.
The Downtown Alliance put on the festival, with major sponsorship from APG Federal Credit Union. The festival, which attracted at least 1,500 people this year, is typically held in March and heralds the beginning of a slew of local springtime events.
"For the price you pay to come in, and the sample tickets, it's a good buy for the family," Linda Flint, a board member of the Downtown Alliance, said.
Admission was $5 per person for anyone age 7 and older. Children 6 years old and younger were admitted free.
This year was the first time McPherson oversaw the Chocolate & Candy Festival for the Downtown Alliance. McPherson was named executive director in December 2014.
"Many thanks to past executive directors who created that framework [for the festival], that we can come in and pick it up," she said.
This year's festival was also the first for Roman Davidyuk, the Downtown Alliance's new promotions director.
"It's been great," he said of the attendance Saturday. "It's been very full; we've had a steady flow from the moment the doors opened."
Thirteen vendors, representing Baltimore-area chocolate, candy and frozen treat makers, took part in the festival. Visitors could also listen to music and check out a martial arts demonstration and the inaugural chocolate creation contest.
Davidyuk said the contest was developed "as a way to get the community more involved."
Seven people participated in the contest, which was open only to home bakers. People who bake commercially could not take part, Davidyuk explained.
"Anyone that has a really great chocolate recipe could participate," he said.
Former Harford County sheriff and new Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane, Harford County Director of Community Services Amber Shrodes and P.J. Chambers, of the web design and social media firm WebIXI, were the guest judges. Jessica Duryea, of Belcamp, was the winner, Davidyuk said.
McPherson noted several downtown restaurants and retailers were offering discounts to people who attended the festival.
"We're really working hard with our membership to have that relationship so we can support each other, with the whole goal to have a vibrant community, downtown Main Street," she said.
The festival brought in an audience, not only for chocolate and candy makers and downtown Bel Air merchants, but anyone looking to promote an upcoming event in the area.
Kris Opulencia, of Forest Hill, handed out fliers for Harford's Most Beautiful Baby Contest. The results of contest, which is being put on by the Harford Family House, will be announced May 10, and submissions are being accepted through April 6, according to the Harford's Most Beautiful Baby Facebook page.
The Harford Family House, in Aberdeen, provides shelter for homeless families; Opulencia is a board member.
"It got a lot of people out on a snowy weekend," Opulencia, who came with her husband, Hector, and their daughters, Julianne, 11, and Chloe, 8, said of the festival. "It's been pretty packed the whole time we were in there."
Hector Opulencia and the girls enjoyed the sweet treats.
"The truffles were good," Julianne remarked.
Hector noted the children had the opportunity to sample sweets outside of what they normally enjoy.
"It gives them some exposure to the local things they can eat," he said. "Not everything has to be Hershey's."
Maureen Weaver, of Joppa, her 5-year-old son, Jimmy, and fiance, Jerry Fonshell, enjoyed the chocolate and candy samples, as well as the martial arts demonstration. She snapped photos as Jimmy practiced breaking boards.
"It was awesome, and of course, the chocolate's really good," she said.
Weaver said she really liked the chocolate and peanut butter fudge samples offered at the vendor table for Sweet Eats Cakes, of Bel Air.
Fonshell said he expected to see more samples, however.
"Jimmy's having a good time," he noted. "The karate thing, he really liked."
Abingdon resident Palis Gaidajis was a little less impressed with the samples offered. He said of the event that, "mostly it was OK," but he expected better-tasting chocolate.
"I could say I'm a chocolate lover," he said.
Gaidajis said he has tasted "exceptional" chocolate at larger retailers in the Baltimore area.
"It's a decent event," he said of Bel Air's festival. "I like to think it boosts local businesses, and if they improve it, I think they will attract even more people and maybe change places, go bigger."
Wockenfuss Candies, which is based in Baltimore and operates a retail store in Bel Air, is a regular at the Chocolate & Candy Festival, and this year is no exception. The company is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.