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Variety draws thousands to annual gift fest

Lilly Swingley, 4, is surrounded by bubbles at a booth at a past Holiday Food and Gift Festival at the MetraPark Expo Center.

Lyle Hendrix thinks he just might have figured out what people want in a good business deal.

"People like doing business when they look at each other eye to eye," he explained. "They don't want to have to wonder what they're getting for their money."

That practice was certainly in effect at the 23rd annual Holiday Food and Gift Festival, held yesterday and today at the MetraPark Expo Center, as thousands of people shuffled through a bustling marketlike atmosphere. Booths of all kinds hawked their wares, which were spread out on tables or hung on racks - often with free samples in the case of food - for all to see.

Hendrix, an employee of Livingston-based Miller Farms, stood behind two tables on Saturday doing just that, offering a handshake, a smile and a small sample of either ham or bacon to everybody who passed by.

Miller Farms, which sells natural, farm-raised pork products, is just one of 255 vendors, organizations, local restaurants and businesses on hand at the festival, held each year at

MetraPark. Booths offer a wide variety of goods and services, including jewelry, art, furniture, cosmetics, massages, health products, snacks and all sorts of knickknacks - many of which were handmade by local and regional businesses.

"I think a lot of people want to support these kinds of home-based businesses," said Sharon Jones, who was selling copies of Billings On Board, a Monopoly-like board game featuring Billings businesses and landmarks to benefit the local Ronald McDonald House. "And it helps with the early Christmas shopping."

If the recent economic downturn has hit Montana, it didn't show at the festival Saturday afternoon. Organizers expect up to 13,000 people - about the same number as last year - to attend between yesterday and today, all the booth spaces had been rented out, and the aisles at the Expo Center were packed with families, grandparents and couples perusing the items on hand.

"There's been the same number of shoppers so far," Tim Stevenson said. "It really draws a lot of people."

Stevenson owns Medicine River Woodworks LLC out of Florence. He has been selling handmade woodwork at the festival for the past five years and said the key is offering something for every budget. He has items ranging from $5 wooden bears to $800 hand-carved bed frames.

Jones agreed, adding that the event brings something a little different to the shopping table. "It's just a fun day," she said. "It gives you something different than you can find at the mall."

Contact Zach Benoit at zbenoit@billingsgazette.com or 657-1357.

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