Chocolate Fest, Jacob Building, Chilhowee Park, Knoxville, January 2024 (Photo by Alexa-Marie Melendez)
(Today’s article is provided by Alexa-Marie Melendez, UT Intern, who will write for the website for the next few months.)
After the snow melted, rainy days took its place, and even though this past weekend exhibited gray skies, Chocolate Fest captured the brilliance and warmth of a sunny day. January 27th marked the annual Chocolate Fest here in Knoxville. This year a collection of 116 businesses, bakeries, and artisans gathered at the Jacob Building located in Chilhowee Park; to celebrate all things chocolate and sweet, and so much more.
Jennifer Johnsey and her team and business partners worked yearly to make this bright and colorful venue possible. Bradley Drake helps with IT support and the festival’s website and graphics. Diana Waldeck oversees the management and operations of the scheduled tastings, and provides guidance for the servers. Chad Burchett serves as the one and only Chocolate Fest master of ceremonies.
Formerly a commercial baker, Burchett has a great knowledge on baked goods and is a chocolate enthusiast. Since Jennifer brought back Chocolate Fest, Burchett has lent his expertise to the event’s cake competition. Now he proudly MC’s the entire event and the four tastings.
Each tasting is scheduled throughout the event for a duration of 45 minutes. Participants with the appropriate wristband, are able to taste an array of samples from the vendors. The samples are brought out by confident staff and volunteers who come ready out the gate to serve the participants. Effortlessly going back and forward to provide outstanding service from one sold-out tasting to the next. After each tasting, participants are able to vote on who had the tastiest sample on the menu, an activity that one new participant from Nashville shared she really enjoyed about the function. “It was awesome to be able to sample things before you head out, and make those purchases!” she shared.
Participants were not the only ones from out of town, as Chocolate Fest saw a large increase in number this year, with vendors making the trip from places like Clarksville, TN and even North Carolina. The convention had to utilize both floors of the Jacob Building, an increase that has stirred up talk, on whether the event will move to another location. Jennifer Johnsey, head of Chocolate Fest and its counterpart, Creepy Con, shared that they hope to keep the festival in Chilhowee Park & Exposition Center. However, if the event itself expands then it would serve as an indicator to make the move to a larger space.
“The only venue we would go to from here– the convention center. We love the convention center, we did move Creepy Con to the convention center. If we have to we will move to the convention center but we are going to try not to. The convention center is great, but for this it’s a little more intimate. This building is fantastic, so we really want to keep it here if we can and support this building with a good-quality show. We will expand to a two day show before we move it,” Jennifer stated.
Jennifer originally participated in Chocolate Fest as a judge and enthusiast. Then, when the show ended back in the early 2010s, Larry Clark of Sugarbaker’s asked her if she’d help bring the festival back in 2014. And with her, she brought many friends and business partners alike to help with the revival of this special gathering.
One of those good friends being Director Sue Beverley from the Ronald McDonald House of Charities Knoxville. The organization has helped over 60,000 families with housing during family hospital stays in Knoxville over the course of 39 years, and are proud to sponsor Chocolate Fest. “Jennifer used to work at B-97 Radio with my husband, so she has supported us. When she was at the radio station they did events for us, and when she decided to resurrect this wonderful event, she called and she said can I give you some money,” Beverly said.
Director Beverly shared that Jennifer’s heart for the Chocolate Fest has been a prime element to its growth and success since its reincarnation in 2014, and surviving COVID. “She’s been a wonderful friend and partner and I admire her ambition, creativity, her energy, and her passion for giving back to the community, it’s very wonderful,” Beverly shared.
Others, such as Poppin’ In The City, a family started-and-owned popcorn business, from Clarksville Tennessee, echoed the sentiment. They heard about the event from a Facebook group for vendors. “We got here last night and there were people who met us at the door, and helped us unload. The tables were already set up and it’s so well organized. So this has been one of the best events we went to. We went to about eighty last year,” Amy Davis, co-owner of Poppin’ In The City shared.
In attendance were many from the Knoxville area such as Coffee and Chocolate Company, Kimmie’s Kitchen, and Handmade Toffee and Treats. Others present were D’ Brian and Lisa Varnado of Marble City Sweets, not only known for their baked goods, but their appearance on the third season of Netflix’s Sugar Rush. Although the festival has seen so much growth it was nice to talk with long-time chocolate vets, who had been a part of the festivities and have seen its growth.
Long-time attendees, The Chocolate Ladies from Talbott, Tennessee, a small town between Morristown and Jefferson City, have been attending Chocolate Fest since it was originally put on as a fundraiser by the Kidney Foundation of East Tennessee. Rita Key of Chocolate Ladies said, “The first show I remember was held in the East Town Mall, they closed that office– for the kidney foundation and Jennifer Johnsey has taken this over. And she has done a marvelous job with the event and we have been with her when she first started.”
Chocolate Fest looks very different from twenty years ago. In 2002, it was a fundraiser in East Town Mall with 25 vendors. Now it’s a full-on festival and show, with a range of different elements, growing from 25 vendors to 116 in attendance as of this past Saturday. And it seems their numbers and support for the community will continue to grow.
The entire space was colorful and lively, as reds and pinks adorn every stall and vendors were dressed up for the festival. The show’s atmosphere was filled with music and chatter, as artisans and confectionists alike shared and talked with participants. It was inspiring to learn about the history of Chocolate Fest, meet its community and sponsors.
A featured event is the cake contest held in honor of Larry Clark, better known as THE Cake Guy, a beloved baker and the owner of Sugarbaker’s for three decades. His legacy lives on with Sugarbaker’s and Chocolate Fest alike, he was a long-time member on the board for the Kidney Foundation of East Knoxville. Knowing Jennifer’s work with Creepy Con, he asked for her help to revive Chocolate Fest. Seeing its resurge and success before he passed away in the mid-summer of 2020. Many patrons, vendors, and staff alike expressed their admiration and appreciation of Clark.
More information about Chocolate Fest can be found at their website “MyChocolateFest”, where you can learn more about the event and its vendors, their partnership with Ronald McDonald, and subscribe to their newsletter.