This Memorial Day weekend Saturday, May 27, when thousands of people arrive in Trenton for the annual Pork Roll Festival — a capital city-made delicacy — Scott Miller will be happy as a pig in you-know-what.
Miller, 49, is a Wilkes-Barre native who years ago landed in Trenton with a hunger to do something and became one of the city’s biggest pork roll promoters and the head of Trenton Pork Roll Festival. He even holds the copyright for the name — more on this later.
“I grew up eating Lebanon bologna, which is a similar product,” Miller says about developing his taste for pork roll. “I ate it nearly every day, and also pan-fried it. However I didn’t eat pork roll until I moved to New Jersey in 1990 (to work in the environmental services field). My first experience was probably a pork roll egg and cheese sandwich accidentally purchased from a ‘roach coach’ on Doremus Avenue (in Newark) while working on an environmental remediation project. I remember being curious what this pink meat was inside. I think I may not have finished it because I didn’t know what it was, and I thought I just bought an egg and cheese sandwich.
“I first learned about pork roll through the early 1990s art of Thomas Reeves who used parodies of the brands in paintings and also in a pork roll doll character that he made and sold. My current revived interest came about when my friend Andrew Allshouse brought a box of slices to my house and cooked me a sandwich. I never had home-fried pork roll up until that time, and once I smelled the aroma I was hooked.”
Miller — whose late father was an electrician — moved to Front Street, not far from the Barracks Museum and other historic sites. It was when the city was hosting the CoreStates Bank bike race and the Heritage Days festival in Mill Hill Park, both of which have been dormant for some time.
“I thought the Pork Roll Festival was a chance to bring some of that back,” Miller says of those former citywide events.
He has also become involved in the Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market and Art All Night, helping to make promotional videos and setting up sound systems. The three events clearly appeal to an audience that is looking for more than a typical community social event.
Talk with Miller for any time at all and it becomes clear he was smitten by an opportunity for creativity and community with a nostalgic rust belt vibe. In 2003 he created Exit 7A Creative Services, a media production company that serves small businesses and community building efforts.
One recent project was a commercial for the city of Trenton. “They just commissioned us to produce a positive commercial about the city. It talks about the new Roebling Lofts project.”
At the moment Exit 7A is him and one other person, Tony Catanese, Miller says. Catanese goes by “Tony Goggles” when he plays drums for Honah Lee, a Trenton-based hard-rock outfit.
“Just about anybody who is doing anything in film in the city, we donate equipment and services,” Miller says. “It’s me and Tony, filming, sound, production. I work with a big list of people and some other people in the community who have equipment. I think that is more of a business model these days for lean and mean operations. Plus I use interns” from the College of New Jersey and Rider University, he says. “I started the studio in 2003 but didn’t do the creative stuff until about 10 years ago.
“There are a lot of single creative people who want to have fun, and it’s all cooperative. Another thing is we get a lot of volunteers from the community. There are a lot of people, and I see them at the same events.
“Maybe that’s why I’m a little more passionate about Trenton than most people. I don’t have any kids. I feel it has to be up to the citizens to turn the city around. I like Trenton because it has a vibrant arts community. There are amazing people in Trenton. I have a feeling that if I moved anywhere else in the country I would miss that. We’re doing a lot of things behind the scenes. We’ve probably helped 40 or 50 people produce music, local groups mostly — and also out of town.”
Miller says of the festival in Mill Hill Park on Saturday, May 27, “I think we’ve already sold 500 tickets, which is a good start.”
The logistics of putting on a festival appear daunting. “Our festival directly benefits over 20 food vendors and downtown restaurants, local tourist attractions and museums, partners with charities, veterans groups, etc. and generates money and jobs for the city,” he says. “We receive no financial support or price-breaks from the city. The festival actually generates revenues for the city and provides overtime pay for more than 10 city employees on festival day.
“We pay to use the park. We also pay for Trenton police, city park rangers, and our festival permit. All of our food vendors are inspected by both the New Jersey fire marshal and the city health inspector. The city and state benefit financially from the festival via vendor permit fees which can be as much as $100 per vendor. We also procure our own insurance, and must pay for waste disposal, tents, chair, and table rentals, bands, porta-potties, use of the county band shelter, etc. We pay thousands of dollars each year for our insurance.”
Miller then lists some of vendors who have signed on. “DeLorenzo’s Pizza. They debuted their pork roll pizza at our food truck festival last year. Checkers restaurant, House of Cupcakes — supposedly they’re working on a pork roll cupcake. There’s a new vendor from Central Jersey and he’s going to do a pork roll egg roll. In the past we’ve had pork roll pierogis. Pork roll canoli are also rumored to be unveiled.”
Also on the list is Trenton restaurant 1911 Smokehouse, located in Miller’s neighborhood on Front Street. “They were one of our main vendors last year,” says Miller. “They’ve become one of the favorite restaurants in Trenton. When they first opened I told them if they wanted to have success they should add pork roll to their menu.” So is Dunkin’ Donuts, which for the past two years has offered a pork roll croissant, he says. “They test marketed the sandwich in central Jersey and Pennsylvania last year and might expand to New York this year. We like to think we had something to do with their pork roll sales.”
The conversation then moves to the main course. “Case is a sponsor of our festival. Case has had to expand its facilities to keep up with demand because of the publicity surrounding the festivals,” says Miller.
“We are the largest commercial for pork roll there is. All of our food vendors bring and sell their own food products. They use a variety of pork roll, including Case, Taylor, Hatfield, and fresh Amish pork roll. We’ve even had Vincenzia Gourmet Pork Roll by Whole Foods at our 2015 festival (which was a big hit). Most of our festival fans and vendors prefer Case Pork Roll, and it’s the predominant pork roll type you’ll find at our festival.
“We’d like Taylor to be part of our festival/sponsor. Case would also like to see Taylor be a part of the festival, as it would make it better for everyone to have both major Trenton companies represented, and it will attract more people from North Jersey. We really want the Taylor Ham crowd to feel at home at our festival this year, and will be doing some things to specifically reach out to them,” says Miller.
Of course, the metaphorical 100-pound log of pork roll in the room is the continuing clash between competing pork roll festivals in Trenton, with Miller on one side and Trenton Social owner T.C. Nelson on the other. The two had partnered to create the first festival and then parted ways.
Now the Trenton Social version touts itself as the one “where it all began.” Miller sees it as an issue of intellectual, financial, and business property. “I set up this festival as a New Jersey LLC in March, 2014,”Miller says. “At that time I also purchased the domain name and started advertising the event.”
Suffice it to say that the falling out creating the two pork roll festivals mirrors the rivalry stared in the mid-19th century between Taylor and Case’s pork rolls that resulted in some pig-headed brand loyalties.
About his effort, Miller says, “We work on the festival year-round, especially on promotions and maintaining our Facebook page, which has 11,000 followers and is our main link to fans and supporters. Our core group of about 10 people handle all the planning, and we have more than 50 volunteers on festival day. We buy all of our volunteers a festival staff shirt and we are looking for more help on festival day.” Also on board to help is Miller’s 77-year-old mother.
“Raising the money before the festival to cover the costs is always the challenge,” Miller says. “For the first three years, I’ve had to take money out of my 401(k) to cover the upfront costs. We haven’t landed a major sponsor yet. The benefits of this festival are large and varied. The main benefit is that it helps us build our community and provides an economic boost to downtown businesses and residents. Second, the festival has revived a national interest in pork roll. Case factory has expanded and created jobs, Dunkin Donuts is selling pork roll as a summer sandwich for the third year in a row, and pork roll is bigger than ever.
“This year I’ve started working with downtown resident Laura Carter, whom we’ve hired part time to help us with admin, communications, and merchandise sales, and she’s been a big help. We’ve been working on the festival a few days per week since December.”
Not only are things shaping up for this year’s pork roll festival, but pork roll seems to be catching on nationally. After all, President Obama mentioned pork roll in his commencement address at Rutgers last May, joking about passions that might arise over the regional nomenclature, “Taylor ham” vs. “pork roll.”
“There is no limit to what can be accomplished with pork roll,” Miller says. “I’ve recently started a Pork Roll Chamber of Commerce, which may spin off into its own thing soon, a Pork Roll Fan Club, and we are currently exploring some opportunities to produce pork roll festivals in other New Jersey cities.”
And, of course, a 2017 Pork Roll queen is waiting to be crowned.
Trenton will have two pork roll festivals on Saturday, May 27. One will be in Mill Hill Park, tickets are $5 in advance, children under 10 are free. Also, in the Trenton Social parking lot, 449 South Broad Street. $5, $10 after 6 p.m.
This story was originally published in the May 2017 Trenton Downtowner.