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Celebrating the chicken wing: Wing Fest marks end of busy tourism season

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — The unofficial end of summer has arrived. Labor Day marks the finish line for the busy summer tourism season, especially in Western New York. The region is sending off summer 2022 with Wing Fest, which returned to Highmark Stadium this weekend.

After a difficult two years amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many events were sidelined, which limited how many visitors came to Western New York. With many fan favorite fairs and festivals back this year, tourists are also returning to the Queen City. Visit Buffalo Niagara says in July the hotel occupancy was 75 percent. Pre-pandemic in 2019, July hotel occupancy was 80 percent, meaning the industry is rebounding.

“It’s about a 1.9-billion-dollar industry in a non-pandemic year. The hospitality and tourism industry was the hardest hit by the overall effects of the pandemic and the slowest to return,” Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said. “People are coming to Buffalo for our arts and culture, for our outdoor recreation, obviously for the wings, but also our great food scene.”

The busy summer season means fairs, festivals and other outdoor events in Western New York, which attracts visitors from near and far to the region. Wing Fest brings vendors from across the United States and the world, showcasing a dish that shares the city’s namesake.

“This is actually the second time that the Virgin Islands has participated in this competition. We are excited to be back,” U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism representative Desiree Wilkes said.

Barefoot Buddha hails from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands and they brought their award winning creations to Buffalo for the competition. Owner Cory Baker says they are excited to combing traditional wings from Buffalo with St. Thomas style.

“Our sauces are coming from St. Thomas. We’ve incorporated our Cruzan Rum, our curry sauces, we have our local scotch bonnet, and guava. Guava sweet and sour is our winning sauce from St. Thomas,” Baker said.

Other vendors drove more than 24 hours across the country to Orchard Park. Double Dubs traveled from Laramie, Wyo. for the festival. One of their best customers is Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who ate their wings while he was a student at the University of Wyoming. Owner Trent Weitzel says they sell their wings the Buffalo way: no ranch, only blue cheese.

“We do not do ranch. We do blue cheese. Everybody comes up and asks for ranch. I want the people of Buffalo to know that we are true wing connoisseurs even in Wyoming,” Weitzel said.

Local favorites were also featured at the festival, including Doc Sullivans from South Buffalo. They showcased their beef on weck, Smitty and Carolina BBQ sauces.

Buffalonians love the festivals, too, celebrating what makes the area great with family and friends.

“It’s phenomenal to taste all of the different wings that people come up with, especially from Buffalo having them be originated here and to see the twists that all of these places can bring out. It’s so good. It’s so good,” Eric Wildey of North Tonawanda added.

As Western New Yorkers hold on tightly to the hazy days of summer, some are looking toward the fall, which also brings visitors to Buffalo.

“One of the things that we did hear from our hotels is really they don’t need a lot of help during the summer months, but really those shoulder seasons. We are going out very aggressively with a fall message to come to Buffalo,” Kaler said.

Wildey loves the fall season, not only because of the food, but because of football season.

“Full trays of wings. It’s going into football season. Football season is in the fall. To me, it’s ending summer and it’s that transition to fall for you, so it’s really, really fun,” Wildey said.

Wing Fest continues on Sunday at Highmark Stadium from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. World-famous competitive eater Joey Chestnut will try to win the wing crown for most wings eaten in 12 minutes.

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.

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