Year two of the Great Omaha Chocolate Festival at UNO celebrates one of popular culture's great food indulgences.
Organizers of the September 30 event, which benefits the Omaha Section of the National Council of Jewish Women, say chocolate's diversity will be highlighted in displays by 44 vendors. Sample wares ranging from cupcakes to cookies to candies to frozen yogurt to dog treats. Chocolate lotions, candles and clothing items, along with cookware, will also be available.
Big O 101.9-FM radio personality Dave Wingert will emcee the proceedings.
Bakers Candies of Greenwood, Neb, is the corporate sponsor and its general manager Todd Baker says the event will offer "chocolate made to almost every conceivable taste, from the highest end elite artisan confections all the way down to the mass produced broadly available consumer products."
Festival co-chairs Beth Friedman and Joanie Jacobson, who've partnered on several NCJW projects together, say whether you're a connoisseur or not the fest's Willy Wonka-like sampling should please anyone looking to get their chocolate fix.
"It's the variety," says Friedman, a Brooklyn transplant. "I think it's the fact that no matter what you may want you can find something to satisfy your chocolate fancy. A lot of it is about the vendors, we could never ever do it without the vendors' participation and support. They provide the samples that fuel the festival."
Jacobson, a Des Moines native, doesn't believe the strong response to last year's inaugural fest, which drew 2,200 people, has anything to do with a foodie fad.
"I just think chocolate is the ultimate, quintessential comfort food," she says. "It is ambrosia. It's this staple that's a part of people's lives. There's T-shirts and mugs and greeting cards and lewd magazines that talk about chocolate. Chocolate's everywhere and I think it always will be because I don't know anything else like it.
"It's amazing the appeal of chocolate. It makes people happy."
Jacobson's enthusiasm for the subject is personal.
"I'm a registered, card-carrying chocoholic. I'm 66 years old, so I've been eating chocolate for a long long time and I really believe with all my heart and chocolate soul that a good 75 80 percent of the public is in love with chocolate."
Todd Baker says while chocolate never goes out of style there are trends and the festival showcases what's new or hot in the chocolate universe.
"The festival will be a great place for not only vendors but the general public to see what's happening within the industry," he says. "What you'll continue to see this year and actually got a hint of last year is really unprecedented manufacturing attention in the field of dark chocolate. As the American palette has matured more Americans have developed a taste for dark chocolate.
"Industry studies also point to the superlative health benefits of dark chocolate -– everything from lowering blood pressure and stroke risk to increasing happiness and well being. The only thing people needed to eat more chocolate was an excuse and the studies have provided that for us."
He says Bakers will not only scout for new products and ideas there but introduce new flavors at the company's own booth.
"We've worked very hard on three new meltaway chocolate flavors to debut at the chocolate festival this year, which is the most new flavors we've ever added in any one year."
In 2011, he says, "Bakers Candies became the first candy company in the world to mass produce a chocolate potato chip cluster." It was introduced at the fest, where samplers were blissfully unaware of the logistics behind it. "It took a tremendous amount of work on the automated production technology side to get potato chips and chocolate solidified before they got soggy and ruined the formula," he says.
Baker, whose father Kevin launched the company after a career as a missile defense contractor, realizes most chocolate lovers don't care about where the chocolate they enjoy comes from. But Baker says they might be interested to know the U.S. now has "access to all kinds of coca we've never had access to before," adding, "The variety of chocolate available to the American consumer is unprecedented anywhere in the world. It's quite fantastic."
It's why he says there's never been a better time to be a chocolate fan, though he says the automation that's allowed companies like his family's to grow comes with the price of compromising the flavor of old-time, hand-made recipes. On the other hand, he says some of the best chocolate innovators are small shops just like the ones slated for the festival.
Proceeds support local social action projects by the Omaha Section of NCJW, whose mission, Friedman says, is improving the lives of women, children and families. While she concede chocolate won't fix bullying or domestic violence, it's a safe, fun, family-centric thing. The Iowa Western Community College Culinary Arts program will offer hands-on chocolate activities for kids along with The Cordial Cherry. Cooking demonstrations are planned too.
The noon to 5 p.m. event takes place at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Field House. The $5 admission includes buys five samples. Children under 10 get in for $3 and receive tickets for three samples. Extra samples may be purchased.
The irony for Friedman is that since becoming co-chair she's been diagnosed as pre-diabetic, meaning she's had to eliminate all sweets from her diet. No matter, she's just glad to carry the chocolate banner for a good cause.
For details, visit www.omahachocolatefestival.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.