Portage & Summit Counties

Mantua Potato Festival

Mantua Potato Festival in Portage County, OHPortage County was once a major potato producing area, dating back from 1855.  Also, according to Frank Goodell, long time resident and farmer in Mantua, starting in the 1940s and lasting for about 30 years, potato chip industries had a strong presence in northeast Ohio, and several farmers in Portage County were growing over 400 acres of potatoes to meet the demand.  Potatoes are no longer as significant as they once were in the area, due to development of agricultural lands and the inability to make the crop profitable, but this history is remembered during the Mantua Potato Festival.

According to the festival organizers, the Mantua Potato Festival today stems from a Potato Show in 1938 put on by local merchants, where farmers came to display their crops and agricultural experts were present to give advice.  As part of this event, the Mother's Club served a potato dinner. The Potato Show stopped during World War II and was put on hold until 1974, when the Mantua Merchants Association restarted it as the Mantua Potato Festival as it is now known.

The festival today, now 33 years old, is much different from the original Potato Show in 1938.  While the 1938 Potato Show focused much more on potato production, the festival today focuses on potato consumption, where vendors serve a variety of foods made with potatoes by members of the community.  The Rotary Club sells pirogues and salt potatoes (potatoes cooked in brine), and the Portage Faith United Methodist Church sells potato bread, potato soup, and mashed potato dessert cakes.  The Christ Lutheran Church sells potato pancakes with sour cream, apple sauce, and maple syrup, and the Brimfield Lions Club sells potato salad along with barbecue pork sandwiches and apple dumplings with ice cream.  Goodell Farms also has a booth where, in addition to their maple products, they sell potato donuts, potato bread, potato chip cookies, and potato candies all made by Virginia and Barb Goodell.  The festival organizers have compiled a cookbook for sale at the event which includes the recipes for the potato-based foods sold at the festival.  Festival-goers can also buy fresh-cut potato chips and French fries from "fair food" vendors, as well as non-potato based food such as sausage sandwiches, hot dogs, nachos, funnel cakes, caramel apples, and cotton candy.

There are several potato-centered activities at the festival as well, including a potato chip eating contest on Saturday morning and a mashed potato eating contest on Saturday afternoon.  The contestants in the mashed potato eating contest have three minutes to eat a full plate of mashed potatoes without using their hands.  The first one to clean his or her plate (or the one who has the cleanest plate at the end of the three minutes) wins.  There is also a "Bake Off" Competition and Auction, where people can submit potato-based dishes in eight different categories: appetizer/snacks, salad, bread, soups, main dish, vegetable side dish, dessert, and candy.  Other activities at the festival include a potato stomp race, musical performances, carnival rides, paintball, and a parade.

Twinsburg Farmers Market

Twinsburg Farmer's MarketLocated in the Twinsburg Township Square on Church Street, the Twinsburg Farmers' Market takes place every Thursday from 3 to 7 PM. during July through September.  The market was started in 2005 by the Twinsburg Visitor's Center.  It is smaller than other markets in the area, such as the Countryside Farmers' Markets in Peninsula (Saturdays 9 AM-noon, June 17th — October 7th, at Heritage Farms--6050 Riverview Rd.) and Akron (Thursdays 3-6:30 PM, July 13th — September 28th at Cedar and High Street), but it brings in a variety of vendors not only from Summit County, but from surrounding counties such as Portage and Cuyahoga.  While there are vendors selling foods including tomatoes, peaches, green peppers, hot peppers, zucchini, squash, eggplant, cantaloupe, garlic, sweet corn, jam, maple products, honey, breads, and pies, there are non-food products for sale as well, including soaps and clothing.

Goodell Family Farms

There are many sugar maples located in northeast Ohio in an area about 25 miles wide.  The trees start at Lake Erie and go down through Portage County, though not much further south than that.  North of Portage and Summit counties, the Geauga County Fair holds maple syrup competitions, and the Maple Festival in Geauga County, which brings in several thousands of people, has competitive maple syrup shows.  At the Maple Festival, there is both an in-county competition (for those with less than 200 taps) and a larger out-of-county competition.

Goddell Farms, Portage County, OHLast year, Goodell Family Farms won the out-of-county competition.  Goodell Farms, located in Mantua in Portage county, has about 2, 800 taps, not the largest in the area but, according to farmer Frank Goodell, “a nice size for us.”  Last year, they produced over 1,000 gallons of syrup.  In addition to syrup, they sell a variety of maple products including candies, maple butter, maple sugar, maple covered peanuts, popcorn coated with maple, and maple barbecue.  Because customers see them as unique, these other products make up a significant amount of the farm’s sales.  The farm is made up of about 450 acres, though not all of it is used for syrup production.  Some land is used as wood lot, and some land is shifting from a maple operation to a chicken operation.  In addition to selling maple products from their home, Frank and Virginia Goodell sell at farmers’ markets in Shaker’s Square in Cleveland, Kent, Mantua, and Twinsburg.  Goodell Farms is also known for its pancake breakfasts held each Sunday in March.  When the event began in 1982, only the Goodell family prepared and served the food, but since then, because up to 500-600 people come for the pancakes and maple syrup,  they have begun to hire additional workers to help them.

Frank’s great-grandfather built a log cabin on the land in Mantua in 1825.  He began producing syrup from one sugar maple around 1930, and “syrup has been continuously in the Goodell family since that time.”  To produce the syrup today on the farm, plastic lines carry the sap into the sugar house for storage.  Frank’s son then processes the sap by running it through reverse osmosis, which gets rid of 60-70% of the water.  After this is done, the sap is boiled.  They used to sell only light amber products, but within the last few years, they have begun to sell three grades: light, medium, and dark amber.  Frank says that the best syrup is made from light amber, but medium and dark amber syrups are the most popular among his customers generally.

Because of his strong background with maple production, Frank started judging syrup competitions at the Geauga County Fair in the early 1940s.  The qualifications for judging differ depending upon the association who is holding the competition, but the basic categories of evaluation are color, clarity, density (the only category of judging that is not subjective), and flavor.                            

Blue Jaye Farm

Blue Jaye Farm in Summit County, OHDaniel Jaye's family bought the land of Blue Jaye Farm in 1966, using the land to raise horses and goats.  Michelle, Daniel's husband, quit her full time job in 1998 in order to work more with plants, and she began by growing pumpkins.  That year she sold out, and the next year she expanded to growing and selling tomatoes and sweet corn.  In 2000, Daniel and Michelle put up the greenhouses on the ten acre farm ("It's small, but out here it's large").  Michelle and Daniel grow a variety of produce, including cherry tomatoes, celebrity tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, berries, peaches, cantaloupe, and melons.  They also grow geraniums, herbs, perennials, pumpkins, gourds, and Christmas trees, and Michelle makes pesto and jam as well to sell at the markets.  Michelle began to make maple syrup when an Amish friend of hers from Middlefield in Geauga County pointed out that she had a lot of sugar maples on her property.  There are about 110 sugar maples on Blue Jaye Farms.  Their neighbors let them make syrup from their trees as well, so the Jayes have a total of 250 trees to work with.  They make the syrup in what Michelle calls the "old-fashioned way," extracting the sap with buckets and spouts and putting it in one 550 gallon collector.  They then take it to the sugarhouse of their Amish friend, where he uses his horses to pump the sap from her tank to his.  He boils the sap down for her (separately from the syrup he produces for himself), and Michelle points out that making syrup becomes a big gathering in which his neighbors and entire family participate.

Roadside Stands

Roadside Stands in Portage and Summit CountiesPortage and Summit counties have a wide variety of roadside stands and produce markets.  For example, the Jahn family has a sweet corn stand, marked by two signs on the side of the road that simply read “Sweet Corn,” in front of their house on East Aurora Road just outside of Twinsburg in Macedonia.  Carl works in insurance and Linda is a teacher, and they view the selling of corn as a family hobby.  Both grew up on farms (she in Suffield and he in Streetsboro), so Linda says, “This is an extension of our roots.”  They started selling sweet corn to help build their kids’ college funds.  When their kids were younger, they would grow corn on their property in Streetsboro and sell it for just a couple of weeks during August.  As the kids got older and started to go to college in 1998, the Jahns began selling corn everyday during the summer.  They now sell everyday from mid-July to Labor Day, and then each weekend after that until there is no more corn to sell.  They sell yellow-white bicolor corn.  Once they started selling everyday, they were not able to grow the corn themselves, so they began to sell corn raised by a friend of the family in Suffield.  Carl drives out to pick up the corn everyday, brings it back, and Linda sells it at the stand, staying open from around 10:00 AM until the corn sells out.  Their daughter, a student at Kent State, sometimes helps.  Their son has graduated from Ohio State and now lives in Columbus.  Whenever customers come by from Columbus, Linda asks them to bring some corn to her son since he says there is not any good sweet corn in that city.  She will also give them free corn to thank them.  The Jahns have a lot of regular customers from the area because, according to Linda, “People here love sweet corn…they get addicted to it,” especially when it is fresh.  Linda enjoys the social aspect of selling corn, getting to meet interesting people, and she plans to continue after her daughter finishes college.  She sees it as a fun retirement activity for when she retires from teaching in 4 years.  The Jahn family also grows pumpkins on their property in Streetsboro, which they display and sell in their yard starting the last weekend of September.                  

Sirna and Sons Produce

Sirna and Sons Produce is an example of a year-round produce market.  Bryan Bennington has been managing the retail store of Sirna & Sons Produce since it opened.  The Sirna family has been in the food business for four generations, moving from Chicago to Cleveland to Aurora when they bought Sirna & Sons Produce in 1979.  They began as a farm market selling produce and then later began selling produce wholesale, so that the retail and the wholesale make up two different elements of the business.

Sirna and Sons Produce in Portage County, OHProduce sold at the store include tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, lettuce, onions, peaches, apples, nectarines, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries.  They also sell specialty produce including baby carrots, baby zucchini, sunburst squash, Chinese long beans, edible orchids, fingerling potatoes, French beans, gooseberries, orange plum tomatoes, Holland red hot peppers, plaintain bananas, rhubarb, and yellow tear drop tomatoes.  While produce is their mainstay, the store also sells a variety of cheeses and meats, wine, beer, spices, and Boar’s Head meats in their deli.  They sell local produce, though because locally grown produce is available only certain times of the year, they also import products from Florida, California, and internationally to keep up with customer demand.  According to Bryan, it is more difficult to sell locally grown foods now than even 15 years ago since so many farmers have sold their farms for development. 

Some items, like meat and hot peppers, are not even available in the area anymore.  Apples and peaches, however, are still commonly grown in the general area, especially further east in Ohio.  Selling produce through retail is difficult for many farmers, especially for those with farms that are smaller scale operations (1-2 acres), since consumers are looking for perfection in the food.  When they buy a green pepper, they want it to look flawless on the outside.  Because of this, farmers have trouble keeping up financially and are moving away from that to producing commodity items which they sell to soup companies for processing, for example.

Bryan commented that he has noticed a change in the customers in the store, where they are much more hurried than they used to be when he began working there.  Because of this shift, people are more likely to shop at other groceries stores that are more convenient, even though the prices may be better at Sirna’s.  The store is constantly trying to adapt to draw in customers, branching out beyond selling just produce to include other types of specialty food items.  They also put an emphasis on service, so that if someone asks for something they do not have, they will try to get it by calling suppliers, even if it is just a jar or two of a certain product.

Ninni’s Bakery

Ninni's Bakery in Summit County, OHNinni's Bakery has been in business since 1932, when Anthony Ninni opened it to serve Italian immigrants working in the rubber factories.  Anthony's sons, Frank and Vince, later took over the business and ran it until 1997.  At this point, the building that had housed the bakery since 1945 was condemned, and Vince decided to close the business.  Six months later, Vince nephew, Tony, reopened the bakery with his family's blessing and recipes.  He moved the business from its location on East Cuyahoga Falls Avenue to its current location in a strip mall on Tallmadge Avenue.  The bakery is best known for its Italian cookies, including macaroons, thumbprints, pizzelles; the cookies account for 65% of the business.  It is also known for its tortes, cakes, and candies.                                               

New Era Restaurant

The New Era Restaurant sits in an area of Akron that continues to be known for its industries (the Goodyear Tire Company, for example).  Because of its locations, many of the restaurant's first customers and its regulars were rubber factory workers and other industrial workers who came for the home-cooked food and the bar.  Today, the restaurant is known as one of those places where businessmen sit next to factory workers at the bar and eat lunch.

The restaurant was opened in 1938 by Lucille Juric, a Yugoslavian immigrant.  Later, Juric's cousin, Lucija Strebick, was brought into the business as a cook.  Although the restaurant has been open nearly 70 years, little has changed on the menu, which includes a blend of Eastern European and American dishes.  For example, a customer could choose the Chicken Papkrikash, the restaurant's signature dish of chicken and dumplings in a paprika-based sauce or a cheeseburger and fries.  The restaurant is also known for its strudel, stuffed cabbage, and pigs in a blanket.

New Era Restaurant in Summit County, OHIn February, 2005, the original building was torn down and a new building was constructed on the same location.  Although the building has changed, the dishes and the clientele have not.  The bar still has its regulars, as does the restaurant.  The restaurant was named New Era because of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs during the Great Depression; the restaurant continues to maintain its commitment to working class customers through its affordable prices.

Drive-in Burger Restaurants

The Akron area is also known for its drive-in burger restaurants.  Skyway and Swenson's are the two most popular.  They are individual restaurants that have expanded to new locations within the area.  At these restaurants, you'll see people in Cadillacs parked next to beat-up cars.  Johnny Apple of the NY Times wrote that Swenson burgers were the best burger in the country.  What is characteristic of the burgers in the area is that they put a little sugar into the meat, which gives them a unique taste.  This concept began with a diner called Thackers; people still talk nostalgically about Thacker burgers.  Another local burger restaurant is Bob’s Hamburg, which makes hamburgers with fresh ground beef every day.  There was once a McDonald's across the street and Bob's Hamburg ran it out of business.   Akron claims to have originated the hamburger and they recently held "hamburger hearings" to determine the validity of other locations' claims to creating the hamburger.

Currently, there are seven Swenson's Drive-In restaurants around the Akron area.  The restaurant was founded in 1934 by Wesley T. "Pop" Swenson.  The original location was on a dirt road at West Market and Hawkins.  The restaurant serves the same hamburger today that it served when it first opened.

Drive-in Burger Restaurants in Summit County, OHIn 2005, the Akron Beacon Journal held a competition to determine the best hamburger; readers chose the Swenson burger as the best.  At Swenson's, the burgers are referred to as “hamburgs” and “cheeseburgs” and sell for $1.35 and $1.65, respectively.  One of the more popular items on the menu is the Galley Boy, which is a cheeseburger with two special sauces for $2.35.  Other sandwiches include the steak sandwich, sloppy joe, pork sandwich, and fish sandwich.  Ordering a hamburg with "everything" will add mustard, dill pickles, and onions.  Tomato, lettuce, Spanish olives, hot peppers, grilled onions, cheese, bacon, coney sauce, and cole slaw are available for an additional charge.  The restaurant has recently added a veggie burger and a grilled chicken sandwich for lighter fare.

Marcelita’s

Marcelita's opened on September 8, 1978; it is run by Jack McNeill, his wife, Marcela, and his sister, Jeanne.  When the restaurant began, none of the partners realized that it would last as long as it has.  Jack met his wife in Mexico City while completing a summer internship as a graduate student at Harvard.  They spent some time in Mexico and then moved to the US, where Jack worked for Exxon and Reliance Electric.  When he realized that he didn't like working for a large corporation, he began looking to see what type of work he would enjoy.  Since he wanted to work directly with customers and had enjoyed working at a small business, he and his wife decided to open a restaurant.  When they first married and lived in Manhattan, says Jack, his wife could not cook at all, but when they returned to Mexico, her mother and four older sisters taught her to cook.  The recipes at Marcelita's, then, are all from Marcela's family.  Today, Marcela does not work as much as she once did, but she still is involved in the kitchen and runs the register two nights a week.  Jack explains that the employees are the experts and are given a lot of latitude because they are good at what they do.  When they began the restaurant, Jack and Marcelita both worked full-time in the kitchen.

Marcelita's Authentic Mexican Food in Summit County, OHJack describes Marcela as being extremely hospitable and loving to entertain guests, which makes her excel at the restaurant business.  Marcela could cook well, Jack knew how to manage a business and employees, and Mexican restaurants were just becoming popular in the Midwest, so they decided to open a Mexican restaurant somewhere in the Midwest.  They looked at 54 locations before deciding on the location in Hudson.  The building was a country biker bar at the time; it had the bar and a small kitchen.  They did all of the remodeling to turn the building into a restaurant themselves.

The family decided on Hudson after considering South Bend, where they were living at the time.  Since South Bend could only sustain one Mexican restaurant, and they thought they would need to open several restaurants, it would not work.  Jack did not want to have to travel to several locations, and the family did not want to have to give up control of the restaurant in order to have a chain.  Thus, they decided that one well-managed restaurant would be more effective than several restaurants that could not be well-run, logistically speaking.  Since Jack grew up in Cleveland and there were only two other Mexican restaurants in northeastern Ohio, Hudson seemed like the best choice.  The location was on a well-traveled highway that would attract customers, but far enough away from the strip malls to stand out.

The staff has a combined 600 years working at Marcelita's, a testament to the close relationship between the employees and management.  The kitchen staff has 250 years alone.  Marcie trained each of the kitchen staff herself; many of the employees have worked from 10-25 years at the restaurant.  The restaurant goes on the premise that the restaurant's recipes should not change; the recipes have never changed during the restaurant's history.  Consistency, value, and authenticity are important to the customers, employees, and management.

The restaurant has 10 sauces, all of which are made fresh daily.  Six employees come in at 5:30 AM to prepare the food for the 11 AM opening.  All of the burritos, tamales, tacos, enchiladas, and chimichangas were on the original menu. The sauced burritos, fajitas, and wraps were later added to the menu.

One of the differences that Jack has noticed in the customers is that most of the customers are from a 7-8 mile radius during the week and a 10-15 mile radius on the weekend.  They attract many customers from the east side of Cleveland and Youngstown as well.  When they first opened, though, their customers came from a wider radius.  He attributes this to the increase in Mexican restaurants and restaurants in general.

Sauerkraut balls

One iconic food in the area that has survived recent food movements is the sauerkraut ball.  These can be found in restaurants ranging from extremely upscale restaurants to family restaurants.  In an Akron Beacon Journal contest to determine which food best represents the area, the sauerkraut ball won.  These contain ground sauerkraut, ground ham, bread, mustard, and other ingredients mixed into a paste, coated with crumbs, and deep fried.

Canova’s chili

Canova's chili is also a unique recipe that is a version of Cincinnati chili.  It has warm, tropical spices in it, such as cinnamon and cloves.  No one knows what is actually in it, though.  It is served over spaghetti and is another recipe that began at Thackers by a cook called "Daddy Ross."  The only attempted murder on the food beat covered by Jane Snow was over Canova's chili.  Three gentlemen had the recipe and were suing to sell the recipe.  The niece of one of these gentlemen started to sell chili with this recipe in a restaurant she opened and someone almost strangled her to death with a rope.

Barberton chicken

There are a lot of ethnic influences on and restaurants in the area.  Barberton has a Serbian influence which has shaped a well-known food in the area: Barberton chicken.  Barberton chicken is fried chicken served in chicken houses that are plain-looking, but full of tables.  You sit down and for under $10, you get four big pieces of chicken on a plate covered with French fries made from scratch.  They come with what locals call hot sauce or hot rice, which is like Spanish rice with Hungarian peppers.  The chicken itself is very simple and is fried in lard.  They cook the chicken to order.  There are about 4-5 chicken house restaurants that serve the Barberton chicken: Hopocan Gardens, Belgrade Gardens (the original), White House Chicken, and Milich's Village Inn.  The restaurants are all somehow connected or interrelated.

Swiss cheese

Ohio is also one of the largest producers of Swiss cheese in the country.  People immigrated from Germany and Switzerland into the area and there are still cheese businesses there.  Most of them are small businesses.  There is still an Ohio Swiss Cheese Association, a testament to the importance of cheese to the area.  During “The Golden Age of Cheese” between 1855 and 1910, Aurora was known as the largest cheese center in the United States.  When the steam railroad came to Aurora in 19856, cheese producers in the area were able to distribute their products all over the country and even abroad, making the cheese industry especially lucrative.  Cheese, then, was a major factor in establishing Aurora as a thriving town.

Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy

Besides the farmers’ market, produce stands, and roadside stands, customers looking to deal directly with the farmer they buy from may be interested in learning about the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy (CVCC).  The CVCC is a private, non-profit corporation headquartered in the Cuyahoga National Park between Akron and Cleveland.  The CVCC is in partnership with the national park.  The Cuyahoga National Park contains 33,000 acres of land along the Cuyahoga River; this land includes the river, forests, hills, cliffs, and historic farmland and villages.  The Countryside Farmer's Market and the Hale Farm and Village are also located within the park.  The corporation calls itself a "think-and-do tank" because they are concerned with re-envisioning AND rebuilding local farming and local food systems.  The corporation is responsible for five initiatives: Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) Farming, Farmer's Market, Public Education, New Farmers, and Local Food Works.

The CVNP Farming Initiative is intended to restore some of the farms that were once in the park.  About 25 farms in the park will be rehabilitated, offered for long-term leasing, and managed for modern sustainable farming.  Right now, seven farms are operational.  The Countryside Initiative, as it is called, has four goals: "To lease farm properties in CVNP; To conduct sustainable agriculture enterprises thereon; To help reestablish a working agricultural landscape in CVNP; and, To help preserve and protect for public use and enjoyment, the historic, scenic, natural, and recreational values of the Cuyahoga River and adjacent lands of the Cuyahoga Valley" (from the Countryside Initiative Request for Proposals).

The Farmer's Market Initiative is pretty self-explanatory.  One of the events that CVCC sponsors is a farmers’ market.  The farmers’ market is actually held in two locations: the "country" market is held in Peninsula on Saturdays from 9-12, while the "city" market is held in Akron on Thursdays from 3:30-6:30.  These events help farmers connect with consumers interested in their produce.
The premise of the Public Education Initiative is that local people need to understand that personal food choices affect where and how their food is grown. This, in turn, affects personal health, communities, and the environment.  Some of the projects include the program's website, farmer's market cooking demonstrations, cooking school collaborations, farm tours, food festivals, and reading and discussion groups.

The New Farmers Initiative is designed to help new farmers learn about farming as a business.  The CVCC offers a farm business course, internships, and apprenticeships.  The ultimate goal is to have a farm incubator, which would be around 50 "mini-farms" where people could practice what they have learned.

Finally, the Local Food Works Initiative is concerned with producing local products.  It includes a comprehensive guide to locally grown and produced foods, a guide to commercial kitchen facilities for rent, a guide clarifying food regulations, local food entrepreneur workshops, and an online local food marketing database.  In the future, the CVCC would like to open a business incubator, a kitchen that farmers could rent to turn their products into something that is less perishable.  For example, a farmer with excess tomatoes could rent the incubator and can salsa.  This salsa could be sold for profit, thus enabling the farmer to make money off of his or her crops after the growing season.

The CVCC itself was founded in 1999 by Darwin Kelsey, who continues to direct the corporation.  The idea for the corporation came from European parks, which are part of the fabric of everyday life, rather than set apart as they are in the U.S.  Since farms are constantly being encroached upon by development in Northeastern Ohio and since old farms existed on the park grounds, it was decided that the farms should be leased as examples of what can be done with sustainable farming.  Additionally, since the farms are owned by the park, there is no threat of development companies buying the land.  The farms are rather small and do not receive government subsidies; the goal is to connect these farms with local customers.  This allows customers to have a stake in the farms as well.  By connecting directly with the consumer, the farmer is able to keep more of the profit as well.  There are community, environmental, and economic benefits to such relationships between farmers and customers.

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