Person of the Week
Hot Potato: Denardis Lends a Helping Hand at PoCo
For 12 years, volunteer Rich Denardis has been helping out behind the scenes in the popular Potato and Corn tent at North Branford’s PoCo, coming to Augur’s Field from Friday to Sunday, Aug. 3 to 5. Photo by (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound)
Think about this: Almost every baked potato or ear of corn consumed at North Branford’s Potato and Corn (PoCo) Festival arriving piping hot or freshly roasted will be thanks to volunteer Rich Denardis.
That’s no small task. At least 25,000 are expected to attend the 17th annual PoCo at Augurs Field (290 Forest Road) Friday, Aug. 3 through Sunday, Aug. 5. And of all the delicious food options offered, PoCo’s own potato and corn tent is the top attraction—just ask Rich.
“The tent is constantly busy during the entire festival,” says Rich, who describes himself as part of a well-oiled machine of several supervisors and committee members, including his wife, Diane, who oversee different areas of the tent.
For his part, “I’m the supervisor in the back end where they take the potatoes and the corn out of the cookers, and then they’ve got to shuck the corn and slice the potatoes and get them on the trays,” says Rich, who began volunteering 12 years ago with Diane.
Rich notes every potato is first washed, dried, and wrapped in foil by volunteers from North Branford Senior Center. During the three days of PoCo, part of his job is making sure the food coming out of the turbo-charged potato and corn cookers stays hot.
It’s a bit easier with the potatoes—“they hold the heat,” says Rich. It’s a bit trickier with the corn, which is cooked in the husk and has to be shucked and sent forward at just the right moment.
“The corn takes about 45 minutes to cook, the potatoes, a little more than an hour,” he explains. “Once the corn comes out, we try not to shuck them until the last minute. That’s one of the things I regulate. You don’t want a big pile of corn, because it’s going to get cold. You’re trying to get the corn shucked just in time for people to get them.”
It’s probably something no one else at PoCo stops to think about. Rich’s expertise grew on a curve commensurate with the Denardises’ volunteer hours, and with the growth of PoCo itself.
“The first couple of years, we gave four hours on a Saturday afternoon,” says Rich. “It was just starting to grow by the time I got involved. It was mostly North Branford people and fairly well-attended. Now, it’s everyone in the state! It’s one of the go-to events of the summer.”
Rich and Diane have lived in North Branford for 26 years, raising their son and daughter here. While their son lives and works in New York City, their daughter, now in graduate school in Pennsylvania, still finds time to make her way back to North Branford for PoCo each year to see old friends (she’s also pitched in volunteering in the tent).
When he gets a chance to duck outside of the tent (usually to take a break for food, because, as Rich notes, “you can only eat so many potatoes!”), Rich says the reunions he sees at PoCo are part of the fun for everyone.
“It’s the one activity that everybody in town seems to gravitate towards,” he says. “You do see people you don’t see the rest of the year, and that’s a good part about it. It’s a good gathering event.”
As always, entry is free to PoCo, which fills Augur’s Field on Route 22 with a midway (rides are ticketed, and wristbands are available nightly) and tempting items for sale from dozens of food vendors and craft vendors, as well as plenty of old fashioned family fun like potato sack races and corn shucking contests and entertainment ranging from tractor pulls to a classic car show, live bands all three days, and Saturday night’s spectacular fireworks display.
For these reasons and so many more, “I think it’s a community event everybody looks forward to every year,” says Rich.
He also recommends residents try volunteering at PoCo, too.
“Volunteering is fun. It’s not very difficult,” he says. “You get to be with your friends and you get to meet new people.”
Interested? Sign up or learn more by clicking on the “Volunteer” tab at www.nbpotatofest.com. Volunteers are asked to give shifts of four hours.
For folks like Rich and many others who make up the backbone of PoCo, the volunteer effort extends to many more hours, gladly given.
“A lot of people do a lot of behind the scenes work,” says Rich. “All of the committee members and supervisors it takes to put on PoCo are there all weekend. For the most part, we get there before everybody gets there and leave after everybody’s gone, so it’s a big commitment. On Saturday, by the time we clean up the tent after the fireworks, it’s after midnight.”
PoCo’s Saturday night fireworks will go off at approximately 9 p.m. this year.
All of the committee members and supervisors who put their time and talent into making PoCo happen don’t ask for thanks, but their work is something Rich truly appreciates.
“We have a lot of dedicated people,” Rich says. “The entertainment committee does so much on a small budget to put some great acts out there. You can’t beat the fireworks, and we’re also trying to do new things every year.”
The year, PoCo’s first-ever Beer & Wine Garden opens Sunday, Aug. 5. (Tickets, $25, are available for either 1 to 2:30 p.m. or 3 to 4:30 p.m.) Samples will be offered by vendors representing a mix of eight different craft breweries and vineyards.
The weekend’s musical entertainment schedule begins Friday, Aug. 3 with The Navels from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and Rizzo’s Dilemma at 7:30 p.m. Saturday kicks off with performances by students of Vocal Productions from noon to 2:30 p.m. followed Lines West from 3:30 to 5 p.m., Muddy Rudders from 5:30 to 7 p.m., and headliner Larry Stevens Band from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday features music from the Horizon Blue Band from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and The G Network at 1:30 p.m.
For Rich, all of the hours of volunteer effort, combined with meetings during the year to get organized and ramping up for the first weekend in August, are well worth it to put on a free community event the town loves.
“It’s a community event and there’s no tax money used on it. All the money we make goes back into capital improvements or our rainy-day fund for the next year,” he says. “The reason I volunteer is because it’s such a great community event. I do a little, small part in helping out to make it successful.”