Zany cookies and holiday spirit fuel a big weekend for downtown businesses

OASIS Fine Arts & Crafts’s holiday display is lit up at night. (Photos by Randi B. Hagi)

By Sergio Ossorio, contributor 

Sara Christensen, owner of The Lady Jane and member of the Friendly City Merchants, recognizes this weekend’s Winter Wonderfest as more than just boon to businesses’ bottom lines but also as a communal holiday celebration. 

“It’s a day where we can all enjoy being festive and being connected to the community, while offering things for all ages,” Christensen said. “Every year it seems to get a little bit bigger, and hopefully better, too.” 

Winter Wonderfest, which is this Saturday, is full day of activities focused on local downtown businesses, which open early at 10 a.m. There’ll be face-painting, a dance performance, photos with the big guy in a red suit and carolers. And the day-long festivities will be once again anchored by the Cookie Tour from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

This is the third year The Lady Jane will participate in the Cookie Tour—one of the many Winter Wonderfest events, hosted by Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and the Friendly City Merchants — that encourages community members to experience downtown Harrisonburg (and spend some time and money at local businesses in the process).  

During the tour, ticketholders this year make their way to 12 participating businesses. Each shop is paired with a different local bakery or restaurant that makes a creative holiday cookie. And there’s an element of surprise added to the tour: people who sign up for the walk won’t know what kind of cookies they’ll receive until they visit each business. 

“It’s fun because it gets people downtown to have interesting yummies from lots of different establishments,” said Barbara Camph, OASIS Fine Art & Craft’s board member. 

Last year, chefs from Food.Bar.Food and Shirley’s Gourmet Popcorn Company paired up to make a popcorn cookie, which tour participants picked up at The Lady Jane. 

The combination of mysteriously delicious cookies and holiday cheer has become enticing — and sought after enough — that participants must reserve a spot on the tour early. This year only 200 tickets were available for sale, and they sold out. 

The demand for the Cookie Tour tickets isn’t the only reflection of the event’s success for participating businesses. 

“The tour did bring new faces into the store. We had people participating in the tour that had never been in our store before. Some of them even came back and spent more time shopping here,” said Gary Stiteler, co-owner of Glen’s Fair Price, one of Harrisonburg’s camera stores. 

Christensen said the Cookie Tour has a broader reach than just increasing foot traffic for one day. 

“The value of the Cookie Tour is experiential. It familiarizes people with downtown, so that they learn where everything is, which is really nice,” Christensen said.  

The Keezell building, home of the Yellow Button boutique and Lola Mo’s Delicatessen, radiates with holiday spirit at night.

Other participating shops confirmed that Winter Wonderfest has had a postive financial impact on their businesses, although the exact amount has been difficult to quantify. 

“There was a big difference between 2017 and 2018; we saw a huge increase in sales,” Camph said. 

More businesses are joining in the fun this year. Laughing Dog Studios and The Frame Factory & Gallery are some of the newcomers to this year’s list of participating shops. 

“This is more for a sense of community with our fellow businesses downtown, and spreading holiday cheer,” Dana Harshberger said, the owner of the Frame Factory & Gallery. “We also like the goodwill of events like these and the feeling of community one gets by walking around our downtown and visiting the various shops.”

For the local shop owners, an intangible benefit that accompanies their participation in the big day of events is collaboration. 

“We are able to partner with local restaurants and bakeries, which we love. Each of our areas are so different we don’t often get to collaborate,” Christensen said. “It’s really nice to be able to promote our other neighbors that are not just retail, such as bakeries, restaurants, and coffee shops. It’s a day where we can all come together.”

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