Issaquah company cooks up Bite of Seattle
July 12, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
The birthday celebration for the Bite of Seattle is super-sized to reflect a festival much, much larger than the gathering around Green Lake 30 summers ago.
So, for hungry festivalgoers trekking to Seattle Center on opening day July 15, organizers plan to hand out 1,000 cupcakes.
In a downtown Issaquah office building along East Sunset Way, the company behind the largest food festival in the Puget Sound region is planning celebratory cupcakes and other touches to mark the 30th event.
The company, Festivals Inc., settled in Issaquah in January 2009 after stints in Mercer Island and Bellevue.
Festivals Inc. also produces Taste of Tacoma each June. In the same building, sister company Lifestyle Events Inc. produces Coffee Fest, a popular trade show for the coffee industry.
Jody May, Festivals Inc. president, said the original concept for a picnic in the park evolved into a celebration encompassing more than 60 restaurants and, in a good year, more than 400,000 attendees.
“We showcase these up-and-coming restaurants or these old favorites that maybe you only go to on special occasions, you know, maybe a lot of the Tom Douglas restaurants,” said Cindy Stohr, Festivals Inc. media director.
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The team starts selecting restaurants for the festival long before chefs fire up grills along the Seattle Center grass.
“We try to do the most diverse menu possible, so if it’s a year when, say, we get 10 different Thai restaurants applying, then we try to really balance that and be careful that people coming to the Bite will get to try a lot of different things,” Stohr said.
The centerpiece of the festival is The Alley, hosted by Douglas. The top chef in Seattle and other iconic restaurants dish up meals as a fundraiser for Food Lifeline, a nonprofit organization dedicated to hunger relief.
“I can tell you that there are some that have big egos,” May said. “Tom Douglas is the most humble, honest, down-to-earth, giving, genuine person in the restaurant biz that I’ve ever met. His reason for doing the Bite and for participating in this is just one reason — and that’s Food Lifeline.”
On the menu
In 1982, a recession pummeled restaurants as diners scrimped and ate at home.
Bite of Seattle founder and Issaquah resident Alan Silverman, 79, owned Barnaby’s in Bellevue then, and met other prominent restaurateurs — notable names included Canlis and Rosellini, shorthand for upscale dining in Seattle — for a regular roundtable to discuss business.
“We all, at this one meeting, complained that we were all seeing declining customer counts because of the recession,” he recalled.
The idea formed for a food festival. Similar events in other cities, such as Taste of Chicago, captured Silverman’s imagination. So, too, did the 72nd Street Fair in New York, a celebration stretched across Manhattan from the East River to the Hudson River.
“They had all kind of vendors set up. They had people selling clothes, people selling jewelry and, to my amazement, they also had some restaurants,” he said. “I don’t mean concessions, but they actually had restaurants that I was familiar with, set up there offering a sampling of their wares.”
Creating a similar event in Seattle required a gamble. Organizers already had little lead time. Silverman proposed the idea in April for a July celebration — after looking up the historically driest days in Seattle.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “I had never done anything like that.”
The inaugural festival at Green Lake lacked promotion on TV and radio, just some small advertisements scattered in Seattle newspapers. Silverman expected 25,000 people at most. Instead, the crowd totaled 75,000 people.
“I got a call because he had his restaurant, Barnaby’s, within that lineup, and he was doing corn on the cob. I had to come out, drop everything and go out and shuck corn for 48 hours, all the way through the night, in order to keep up with the volume,” May recalled. “I had the sorest fingers in America that weekend.”
The main course
Other restaurateurs encountered a similar situation at the initial Bite of Seattle.
“All of these restaurant executives and owners came down with their alligator shoes and their gabardine slacks, and the next thing you know, they had their sleeves rolled up, they were in the back of the tent shucking corn and doing whatever they had to do to keep the thing running,” Silverman said.
Organizers also neglected to alert the Seattle Fire Department to the event. The fire marshal stormed the grounds on Sunday and demanded answers.
“One of our staff found me and said, ‘Hey, the fire marshal is here and he is livid. He wants to shut the thing down,’” Silverman said. “Now, this is around noon on Sunday. So I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You make sure he doesn’t find me until 3 o’clock.’ By then, we’re almost done, anyway.”
Still, the unexpected turnout did not offset the cost to produce the festival. Silverman lost $18,000 — a sizeable sum back then.
“The restaurants did booming business,” he said. “We lost our ass.”
The next year, May, then a buyer for The Bon Marché, and a friend decided to take vacation time to help set up the festival and serve as the entire grounds maintenance crew, manicures be damned.
Under political pressure from Seattle City Hall, Silverman relocated the event to Seattle Center in 1986. Some attendees missed the ambience of the Green Lake location, but the shift enabled organizers to add beer and wine to the menu.
The festival’s constant evolution is reflected in the birthday celebration. Each eatery is offering a snack size, or Just a Bite! in event lingo, for $3.75 — the average price for a nibble in 1986.
“We’ve really been trying to get this place where people actually can come and watch their wallets, watch their waistlines and still really enjoy everything,” Stohr said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.