HANCEVILLE — There’s no official head count from Saturday, but if attendance is anything to go by, Hanceville’s first-ever Grilled Cheese Festival probably won’t be its last. Turns out, celebrating the comfort food that everyone can agree on is a good way to get people in the streets.
“It’s one of the biggest crowds we’ve had for just about anything,” said mayor Kenneth Nail, fresh off helping judge the winner of the festival’s best grilled cheese sandwich. “I know a lot of it is people just tired of being cooped up and wanting to get out. But this went above and beyond what we expected when we signed off on it.”
And why not? It’s hard to argue with the logic of local merchants, led by Trinkets & Traditions owner Valerie Hitt, who came up with the idea after noticing the popularity of similar events in larger cities. “Our merchants need a boost, and everybody likes grilled cheese,” said Mike Macon, co-owner of downtown store Just Repurposed, as the day-long event rounded the corner toward the afternoon. “It’s been packed pretty much the whole day, and it’s not just local people.”
The festival closed down Bangor Avenue and Commercial Street in Hanceville, making pedestrian-only room for more than 40 vendors, a band stage, and a row of food trucks — not to mention all the face-painting, cornhole, and kids’ games to keep families (and their pets) busy throughout the day. Pretty much every parking lot within a 3-block radius on the east side of U.S. Highway 31 was filled up, and the festival’s custom-made T-shirts had sold out by early afternoon.
“We just saw it on TV, and then I started seeing it getting talked about on Facebook,” said Raina Posey, who came to the festival from Trussville with her family. “We’d been meaning to come up and visit Cullman at some point anyway, and this is what gave us the excuse. I guess it took grilled cheese to finally get us up here.”
Nail said no one in town will be caught unaware if merchants approach the city with a request to stage the festival again next year.
“To be honest, when they first came to us with this, we didn’t think a lot about it, beyond just granting the permit and making sure the police would be doing traffic control,” he said. “We always want to help our merchants, so of course the [city] council said ‘yes’ when we were asked if they could stage this event.
“It was really just one of those things where you sign off and then you kind of don’t think about it again, partly because you aren’t expecting just a big, big crowd. But let me tell you — this was a big, big crowd.”
For the record, it doesn’t take a fancy ingredient list to walk away with the prize for best grilled cheese sandwich. “There were a few [entries] that had some extra stuff, and they were all good,” said Nail. “But the winner was just a plain grilled cheese. They just knew how to do it right.”