Robert Salamida & Paul VanSavage
Original Co-Founders of Spiedie Fest
When thinking about Spiedie Fest, residents and visitors of Broome County alike immediately find their minds wandering to fond memories of concerts, hot air balloons, dozens of local vendors, rides, and lots of delicious food, the paramount of all, of course, being spiedies. This year, the Spiedie Fest team is excited to bring the beloved festival back to its original weekend in August, after the pandemic pushed the event to an off-season date in October in 2021. Coming back with a bang, the Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally has revamped several key aspects of the longstanding event. Reviving the original logo sporting Johnny Hart’s classic characters, a WWE style belt featuring the iconic image of a dragon cooking a skewer of spiedies is set to go home with the best backyard chef in the revamped cooking competition. Reutilizing the Johnny Hart logo serves as a nice nod to the early days of Spiedie Fest, however, many do not know the story behind how the festival that we know and love today came to be.
Their names are well known throughout community, Paul VanSavage and Robert Salamida, two modern day Broome County legends with a penchant for giving back to the community that supported their success, their greatest legacy: Spiedie Fest. Together, the two came up with the idea for Spiedie Fest in looking for a way to put the community they loved on the map to share it with the world. Going back to the beginning, Paul first met Rob when Salamida was a young entrepreneur, going door to door selling advertising space in the weekly shopper to local businesses when he walked into Paul’s small retail paint and wallpaper store on Main Street Johnson City, Paul’s House of Color.
Paul himself had first moved to Broome County just several years earlier in 1960, and although he was not from the area originally, he found as his roots grew deeper, marrying his wife in 1962, the couple agreed there was no place they would rather live. After a four-year stint in the Air Force, Paul started off in Binghamton working at a small retail paint store in downtown Binghamton before eventually owning the wallpaper business where he had met Rob, and then going on to work in hospitality as the Innkeeper of the Holiday Inn in Downtown Binghamton and holding several positions in local and county government.
Meanwhile, before their paths had crossed, Robert Salamida at 14 started slinging spiedies outside of the deli he worked at in Endwell. He went on to become the youngest person at the age of 19 to have their own booth at the New York State Fair, where he defied expectations selling hundreds of spiedies before rushing off to college just days after his first booth; he would return to the New York State Fair for the next twelve years. Salamida graduated from Bryant college in 1974 and worked for Proctor & Gamble traveling across the country for a year before deciding to return to Broome County, as his roots and ambitions both called him home. As Rob was investigating how to best accomplish his dreams of sharing the spiedie with the world, he was selling advertising space to local businesses when he fatefully walked through the doors of Paul’s House of Colors.
“I don’t even know if I sold him an ad that day or not,” Rob Salamida recalled, “His store was located right on Main Street in Johnson City. I walked right in, and we started chatting and immediately; I thought he was very interesting and very delightful.” Although the pair hit it off, it would be a few more years before they teamed up for what they both considered to be one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of their careers. Rob Salamida would first return with his spiedies to the New York State Fair in 1975, where, while weathering a terrible storm, Salamida was struck with inspiration to “put the sandwich in a bottle,” and just ten months later would find himself selling his Salamida Original State Fair Spiedie Sauce to grocery stores around the state. Around this time, Paul VanSavage was making his entrance into the political arena, first being elected to a town and then county position before ultimately serving as the Director of Purchasing under County Executive Carl Young.
“I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the County Executive’s administration team; I had a lot of ideas for the community I was excited to have the chance to pursue,” Paul said about being offered the position, “That’s about the time when I started thinking about some type of spiedie adventure.”
Despite their individual success and busy lives, the two never forgot about each other after their chance meeting in Paul’s shop, and the duo kept in touch over the years. In 1982, Paul placed a call to Rob after having read a column in The Chicago Sun by Mike Royko about the Royko family’s famous secret rib sauce dating back to 1449 Warsaw, in which Royko declared the recipe the greatest rib sauce in the world, accidentally bringing forward dozens of challengers starting a competition that would eventually be dubbed the Royko Ribfests. Immediately upon reading the article, Paul thought of Rob and his success with his Original Salamida State Fair Spiedie Sauce and suggested he should enter the Chicago based Rib Fest and challenge Royko, however, that night the two together came up with an even better idea.
Similar to the familial pride that the Chicagoans felt towards their rib sauce recipes, families across Broome County all claimed to hold the secret to the best spiedie sauce recipe. While the spiedie originally stems from the Italian immigrants who came to work in Broome County during the days of EJ Victory, it was not until Rob Salamida had the idea to put the sandwich in the bottle that a spiedie sauce recipe was so widely shared. The pair agreed that with the spiedie’s long history, what better way to promote Broome County and bring the community together than through their own festival: Spiedie Fest. That one phone call was the start of a 38 year and growing legacy.
At the time, Paul and Rob knew that they could not accomplish such a great feat on their own should they hope to have the same success as Royko’s Rib Fest. The original event concept was to raise money for Agent Orange veterans with a one-day cooking competition. One of the major things was getting the Binghamton Press and Sun to sign on as the co-sponsor for the event, giving the first Spiedie Fest both the credibility and the reach it needed to flourish. The two remarked it was a win-win situation with Broome County as well, as the county had just opened Otsiningo Park, and the event was the perfect way to draw residents and visitors alike. Hosted on Sunday, August 7, 1983, the first Spiedie Fest, of course, looked a little different than it does today, but still drew an impressive crowd, “11,056, to be precise” VanSavage fondly recalled.
“The thing was, there was no admission, and I just remember a woman coming up to me and thanking us for what we did,” Salamida noted about the first Spiedie Fest, “She said this is the most relaxing family event I have ever been to.”
“The whole objective was family friendly, laid back, relaxed, where you could be eight or eighty and come out and have something to do. In the very early days,” VanSavage went on to say, “we had a couple of other things going on such as a volleyball tournament and a bocce tournament in honor of the Italian heritage, but overall the most important thing was family, family, family.”
The two agreed that it was a beautiful day for the first Spiedie Fest and that the event went off superbly. The main attraction, the cooking competition, they remember had the crowd all abuzz, with the first-place prize being a gas grill donated by Bob Warner of Warner’s Gas. The event had a number of judges made up of the pair’s friends, a couple of officials, and someone from the Broome County Parks Department, as a thank you for their support in navigating with us this new event in their brand-new park.
One of the most unique parts of the whole experience putting together the first Spiedie Fest, the two also agreed, was meeting with Johnny Hart, the famous cartoonist responsible for Wizard of ID and B.C., and the designer of the original Spiedie Fest logo. The logo is actually set to make its return in the 2022 Spiedie Fest, donning a special place on the champion’s belt awarded to the winner of the backyard chef competition. Johnny Hart, the pair shared, was just a very generous and good person, who actually donated the logo he designed for the event, believing in the mission of bringing the community together.
Paul remarked, “Here's a world-famous guy taking literally a couple of hours out of his afternoon to meet with us and then drawing the logo and then just giving it to us it, you know, there was no cost involved. It was incredible.”
“That logo is kind of an asset that we have kind of have forgotten about with all the things that have come with Spiedie Fest, but I will never forget going to his studio and meeting him,” Salamida expanded, “He was just a very good, very decent person, like everyone else who helped make the event a success.”
As the event continued to grow, more community team players turned to Rob and Paul with ideas to help the event thrive. The most notable of course being Joe Slavik, the head of Catholic Charities at the time, and Ron Rogers, owner of Rogers Trucking, who approached the Spiedie Fest organizers with the idea of combining the Spiedie Fest with a Hot Air Balloon Rally. Salamida and VanSavage both saw the opportunity and ran with the idea, noting that once the balloons came in, it really took the event a different direction taking on a life of its own. As it grew, Spiedie Fest went from one to three days and attracted thousands of more people each year as future iterations included adding local vendors, concerts, and more.
“That's why the balloons were so appealing. We saw them as giving legs, long legs, to the event. And while it is quite different than what Rob and I envisioned 1982,” Paul said, “It has certainly grown into an event the community can rally behind and come together for, which was always at the heart of our mission.”
The two attributed their commitment to the community from the teachings of great leaders that came before them, namely George F Johnson. Rob shared how stories of Johnson’s generosity towards his workers helped to shape Broome County’s culture. Unlike other industrialists of his time, Johnson allowed his workers the opportunity to stand on his shoulders, and focused on improving their quality of life by providing affordable housing, hiring fire companies, constructing the Broome County carousels, and hosting dozens of community events including the field days and cook outs that the original Spiedie Fest drew its inspiration from. “You know, what it really turned out to be, what we always knew it was, was not just celebrating our community with a sandwich, but celebrating our community as a cooperative group,” Rob closed with. The two visionaries both agreed once again, that Spiedie Fest would not have come to fruition without the collective of community minded individuals like Rob and Paul leading the charge, and now 38 years later continuing to hold up the mantle.
Rob and Paul are both proud to see how their legacy has brought thousands together to celebrate Broome County and how it continues to grow with the community throughout the years. The two are still heavily involved with the event, supporting marketing efforts, judging cooking competitions, and naturally readers can find Rob behind the grill selling his spiedies by the giant balloon bottle of Original Salamida State Fair Spiedie Sauce.
This August 2022 marks Spiedie Fest’s 38th year and is the first time in two years the event will be hosted during its original weekend. Visit www.spiediefest.com to learn what is in store for the event’s big return this year, including a revamped cooking competition, hot air balloons, entertainment for the whole family, and of course, everyone’s favorite sandwich, the spiedie.
Broome County is incredibly thankful for the creativity and dedication of Rob Salamida and Paul VanSavage as the original Spiedie Fest organizers; thanks to these two men, Spiedie Fest is another reason why #BroomeisGood.