by Brandon Fox
A lot of Richmonders have grown up going to the Greek Festival. And a lot of other Richmonders grew up in the Greek Festival.
“I’ve been working the festival since I was 5 or 6,” says Drew Baker, 32. “All the booths are worked by [a] family -- a lot of people don’t know that. Or it can be a group of friends. The drive-thru, for instance, is run by one generation of friends who grew up together, and their wives and husbands.”
Baker’s family ran the gyro booth every year when he was young – they've now switched to the wine booth -- and by the time he was in middle school, he was learning to make tzatziki from his uncles. Once in college, he and his friends were tapped for set-up and heavy lifting.
Although the planning starts in January, the festival’s prep and set-up becomes a full-time job for the parishioners of Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral for three weeks leading to opening day. The clock starts counting down a week out.
“The whole community comes together on Memorial Day weekend and skewers the chicken and pork for the souvlakia,” Baker says.
At any given point during the festival, there will be 200 volunteers on hand, pouring wine, serving food or the myriad other tasks that keep things running smoothly.
“We’ve grown up with it and developed the skill sets,” he says, to move large crowds in and out each day of the festival. More than 30,000 people walk through, nibbling on spanakopita or settling in with a full plate of moussaka.
Every generation is crucial — and the volunteers that have been with the festival the longest are unflagging. “I’d like to say that the older generation always takes the easy jobs,” he says, “but [these folks] are really tough.”
Most of the food is made by retirees -- they have more time during the day, Baker says. And although the food is prepped as far in advance as possible, most of it can’t be.
“There’s not a lot of prepared food we can do,” he says, “Most of it’s fresh.” Fortunately, the process has been streamlined — the menu is enormous — with the help of Richmond restaurant owners involved with the festival who are used to feeding large crowds.
Mostly, though, for the people volunteering, it’s a way to show off both the cathedral and Greek culture. And it’s also a way to teach the culture to a younger generation.
“[The festival] is important for everyone who comes, but it’s a really big, important event for us because we get to get together -- we celebrate and recognize and learn about our culture as a community.”
The 42nd Richmond Greek Festival will be held June 1-4 at Sts. Constantine and Helen’s Cathedral at 30 Malvern Ave. For details, visit greekfestival.com.