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ChiliFest spices up downtown Huntington

September 16, 2018

HUNTINGTON — For the 35th year in a row, ChiliFest, Huntington’s largest street festival, brought thousands of hungry people to the streets Saturday to benefit the Ronald McDonald House.

ChiliFest is the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Huntington’s largest fundraiser every year, knocking out a chunk of its $650,000 annual budget.

Ron Smith, founder of ChiliFest, said the numbers were looking good judging by the raffle tickets — for a drawing to win a Toyota RAV4 — sold right out of the gate.

Smith said about 3,100 tickets were sold, more raffle tickets than the event has ever sold. Only 5,000 tickets were printed and Smith expected them to nearly sell out.

The turnout was better than Smith had expected due to the impending weather forecast, but Hurricane Florence, later downgraded to a tropical storm, apparently wasn’t a huge fan of chili.

“The grace of God, I guess, kept the hurricane from coming up here,” Smith said. “If anything it’s been hot, but that’s chili weather.”

More than 58 entries were judged in the International Chili Society-sanctioned competition.

This year was the first year for the newest ICS category, homestyle, to be introduced at ChiliFest. Smith said people took to the addition very well.

Thirteen entries were made in the homestyle category - to be an ICS-qualifying event, 10 homestyle entries were required. This year’s winners will go on to the ICS World Championship Chili Cookoff Sept. 29-30 in St. Louis.

The winners of the red chili category were Bill Donovan, fifth place; Laurin Staley, fourth place; Kevin Simmons, third place; Kit Hoff, second place; and Andy Bowen, first place. The chili verde category winners were Phil Majestro, third place; Wendy Shoven, second place; and Tana Harter, first place. The homestyle winners were Joy Keys in third place, Joe Harten in second place and Darren Jester in first place. The salsa winners were Ron Keys in third place, Larry Summey in second place and Joy Keys in first place.

According to Smith, the Amazon team dropped out of this year’s People’s Choice competition at the last minute, after preparing their chili for the event, because the company brought workers from the flooded call centers to Huntington and they needed something to feed them.

The top 10 participants in the People’s Choice competition alone raised $19,296. The Huntington Fire Department won the People’s Choice competition for the second year in a row, bringing in $7,281. The runner-up was Cabell Huntington Hospital with $4,454. WSAZ took third place with $4,175. HFD also took home first place for booth showmanship, with Apocalypse Chili and the Kiwanis Club coming in second and third places, respectively.

“When the firefighters interact with the public, the people are not having a good day,” said Aaron Williams, a captain with HFD. “Today they get to joke, cut up, and they get to see us as something other than what we normally are.”

Williams said the Ronald McDonald House, which serves as a home away from home for families suffering through some of the toughest trials of their lives as their child remains hospitalized next door, is a charity that is near and dear to the firefighters, as a few of them have had to utilize its services for their sick children. Williams also said ChiliFest is a big family event for the department - the booth was manned with about 30 people, with the help of firefighters’ families.

Follow reporter Megan Osborne on Twitter @megosborneHD.

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