The History of ChocolateFest

In 1985 Bill Branen, Jack Berry, and Dave Wright of the Burlington Standard Press along with Henry Spreaha and Henk Hasert of Nestle, Mayor Marty Itzin and the Burlington Area Chamber of Commerce, brainstormed a way to draw tourists to Burlington and to celebrate Nestle’s 20th anniversary of doing business in Burlington.  They capitalized upon the idea that most people love chocolate!

With Nestle’s help, they planned and marketed a Chocolate Festival and gave Burlington the nickname of “Chocolate City U.S.A.”.  The first actual festival was in May of 1987 and entertainment was hosted at local school auditoriums and athletic fields.  The big act that first year was the Kingston Trio.  By 1988 Hershey’s had taken the City to court over its nickname, “Chocolate City U.S.A.”, which took a couple of years and much publicity, including an article in the Wall Street Journal, to resolve.  After the first year, the Festival date was moved to the third weekend in May (the weekend after Mother’s Day).  

In 1992, following several years of changing locations to hold the festival, the need for a permanent site was evident.  With the help of the city, an unused parcel of about 15 acres and a new purchase of about 5 acres were put together.   Several chairmen coordinated the festival including Jack Berry, Kurt Ludwig, Kathy Zdanowski, and Bob Branen (Bill’s son) until he resigned in 1998.  With no heir apparent, the Burlington Chamber of Commerce polled local charities and service clubs to assess the effect of not having a Chocolate City Festival upon their budgets.  They all were very concerned, since the Festival had become, for many of them, their major fund-raiser.

After twelve years, the Burlington Chocolate Festival was facing a number of challenges including the time and effort required to produce it every year.  With a family and his own business to run, Bob Branen approached the Burlington Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee in the fall of 1998 requesting their assistance with a plan to continue the Festival.   

Upon acceptance, Bil Scherrer along with several dedicated local residents, many who previously served on the Chamber Board, began to flesh out a new ‘Operations Committee’  This committee would carry out the huge workload of the Festival by basically dividing the responsibility into several key areas.  (Administrative, Entertainment, Grounds, Marketing, Media, Operations, Sponsorship, Vendors, and Volunteers.)  Chocolate City Festivals was renamed ‘ChocolateFest’ and the new focus of ChocolateFest was to maximize its ability to help local charities and service clubs raise money while bringing a fun tourist oriented event to Burlington and the surrounding area.

ChocolateFest is a separate non-profit organization with its own board and it is not controlled by the City.  In 2017, over 800 volunteers staffed the Memorial Day weekend of ChocolateFest.

 1999 – New group takes over running ChocolateFest, calling themselves the “Operations Committee”.  ChocolateFest parade is cancelled due to expenses and ability to organize it in time.
2000 – Began a “Branding” program by developing a new logo and web page to go on all promotional materials.  ChocolateFest parade is brought back thanks to Aurora. Sponsorship marketing program employed, involving all levels of the business community.

Attendee demographics began to be collected in 1999 through surveys and a ‘Win Your Weight in Chocolate Contest.

Eliminated national musical acts since they were not profitable and focused on regional acts.

Although it was a controversial issue, a Beer Tent was added with sponsorship from C.J.W./Miller Lite.

2001 – A slightly profitable year for ChocolateFest with approximately $140,000 to charities and clubs.

More blacktop is laid down creating better walking conditions.

2002 – Cold weather leads to a loss of over $70,000 to CF but charities and clubs still made about $100,000.

Operations Committee refocuses on cost cutting with over $100,000 taken out of the budget.  ($28,000 entertainment, $23,000 grounds, $6,000 Workforce, $11,000 admin., $27,000 marketing, and $9,000 beer tent)

2003 budget is ~$320,000 and projects a ‘reasonable’ profit with $140,000 to charities and service clubs.

2004 – ChocolateFest is given the opportunity to move to Memorial Day Weekend, thereby adding an additional day of revenue.

A permanent grandstand is built in the Family Land Area.  Material and labor was all donated.  It is named the ‘Wanasek Family Stage’ in honor of all the contributions made by the Wanasek family.

2005 – The move to a 4-day weekend proved to be successful, with a 4th day of good weather following a rainy afternoon the day prior.  ChocolateFest parade is now officially titled “Veteran’s Memorial Day Parade”.

2006 – ‘Chocolate Experience Tent’ is created.  A dynamic emphasis on chocolate vendors and activities.

2008 – A significant upgrade in electrical infrastructure is installed on the grounds.  A necessary investment for the festival’s long-term growth.

2010 – Established an ‘Executive Committee’ to oversee ChocolateFest financials, contracts, and festival expansion.

2012 – Long time advocate, and strong supporter, as well as member of the Operations and Executive Committee – James L Wanasek passes away.  His son, John Wanasek continues in his roles.

2013 – After 26 years, Nestle Foods & Confections announces that they will no longer be able to produce the creation in-house.  They will support ChocolateFest as much as possible as they try to secure an outside source.

The south side of the Chocolate Experience Tent and Retail Expo Tent are reworked.  Vendors are relocated to the north side of the tents to create a more open concept with seating and reveal the Wanasek Family Stage.

A Beer Tent has been part of the festival since 2000.  Starting this year, patrons are able to walk the entire festival grounds with an alcoholic beverage.  This decision was made after thorough discussions with the security personnel and the police department.

2016 – Chocolate celebrates its 30th festival.  Nestle USA celebrates 50 years in Burlington.

2017 – A 4th Entertainment Stage is added in the food court area – called the Café Stage.   Local bands have the opportunity to get noticed.

The Future…..  ChocolateFest continues to make Burlington Wisconsin a destination point during Memorial Day Weekend for people of all ages to enjoy with friends and family.  Facility improvements, keeping what works well, improving where needed, and bringing in new people to carry out the mission will sustain ChocolateFest for years to come.

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