Step aside, Georgia peaches; there’s another flavor creeping into the spotlight, and its mouth-watering aroma will soon be wafting from Lake Lanier Olympic Park.
Returning to its new waterfront coop, this year’s Gainesville Chicken Festival is slated for 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 22.
Esteemed the state’s official chicken cook-off, the event has been a hometown staple since it hatched on the downtown square in 2004.
“We are the poultry capital of the world; what better thing than to have a chicken festival that embraces that?” Gainesville Convention & Visitors Bureau marketing manager Regina Ingebrigtsen said. “The poultry industry is embedded in this community. So many people are involved in the poultry industry, it’s such an economic boost for this area. Having this chicken festival nods our cap at them that we know that they are important.”
This year’s cook team lineup includes returning fan favorites, such as last year’s grand champions The Sky is Falling, and a few brand-new backyard barbecuers like Motor City Limits, founded by Oakwood’s own Daron Bower, who enters the cook-off arena for the very first time Oct. 22.
Hailing from the chicken capital itself and across the state, the 15 teams are pulling out all the stops, crafting new recipes and perfecting their sauces in hopes of bringing home the coveted chicken trophy.
“They’re in full game mode,” Ingebrigtsen said. “They actually practice quite a bit leading up to the event — I hear a lot of them have backyard parties so they can taste test. They’re serious. It’s fun, but they definitely are competitive. These people really put their heart and soul into this cook-off.”
Equipped with smokers, fryers, griddles and grills, each team will be cooking at least 200 pounds of chicken, though some are prone to cook up to 1,000, according to Ingebrigtsen. And with so many diverse cooking styles, she guarantees there will be no shortage of variety.
Samples might range from a classic wing or tender to tacos or chicken pot pie.
“It’s like you’re going to a buffet where there are all these different creations,” Ingebrigtsen said.
A $6 wristband affords 10 “ample samples” or, for $25, festival-goers can secure a set of five wristbands to feed the whole flock. Wristbands will be available at the gate and online starting Oct. 10 via facebook.com/GainesvilleChickenFestival and exploregainesville.org.
All wristband proceeds go directly to the North Georgia Community Foundation’s Gainesville Spring Chicken scholarship for college students pursuing a career in the poultry industry or a related agricultural field.
The wristbands also double as ballots in the people’s choice competition. When guests have eaten their fill, they can drop their wristband in the box of their favorite cook team.
Determining the grand champion, however, is more complex. In what organizers call a “double blind competition,” the cook teams are assigned a number and time to turn in their entry, at which point they’re given a new number and their entry is carried in a generic to-go box to a panel of judges, who range from Kansas City Barbecue certified judges to “just your normal people that love to eat,” according to Ingebrigtsen.
Entries are judged based on taste, texture and presentation. The scores are tabulated by a computer program to determine the winner.
“We have gone extra steps to make sure that this really is a competition,” Ingebrigtsen said.
A self-proclaimed chicken fan through and through, for Ingebrigtsen, it’s all about texture — and the crispier the garlic parmesan exterior on a tender, juicy wing, the better.
“That’s like a touchdown for me,” she said.
The event isn’t just for the big birds; a kids zone will be full of crafts and activities for little peeps, too.
While this year’s chicken festival sports some new features, from first-time pitmasters to live music by The Murphs, the cost of sampling is one thing organizers purposefully left unchanged.
“We know that inflation is happening everywhere around us, so we wanted the chicken festival this year to be one of the places it doesn’t happen,” Lake Lanier Olympic Park special events manager Morgan Wingler said. “People can still get the same amount of chicken for the exact same place, just so it can be a place where families in the whole community can come and not have to stress.”
This year marks Wingler’s first as a chicken festival organizer, though she’s been a faithful attendee for a few years.
“It’s like, I’ve been going to this for years and all of a sudden I’m the Oz behind the curtain,” she said. “I’m excited for the hype of the day. It’s one of Gainesville’s most popular, biggest festivals … and I’m just excited to see families having a good time and enjoying something I got to be part of putting on.”
Parking will be available at the venue, but somewhat hampered on the beach side due to construction. As a supplement, off-site parking will be available at New Horizons Lanier Park from 10:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., with free shuttle services to and fro provided by the Gainesville trolleys.