TO EACH one his taste, so the saying goes. But Sandy and Don Whyte are hoping for each a dozen tastes at next weekend's Taste of the Town, a two-day food festival at the Sheraton-Washington Hotel, that they as it producers have billed as "Washington's Largest Weekend Brunch."
This second annual Taste of the Town, expanded 50 percent from last year to include nearly 50 restaurants and a wine tasting, has learned some lessons. Last year it was considered a critical success but didn't make any money for the charity it was meant to benefit, though the even collected $115,000. Thus, admission price had been increased to $3 ($1.50 with a coupon or passport, about 60,000 of which are being issued through participating businesses, flyers and advertisments). "Tastes," the meat-and-potatoes of the event, will be sold for 50 cents to $1.50 (most about $1) by tickets that are purchased at the entrance. And the restaurants' take had been reduced from 40 to 30 percent. Some restaurants contributed the money they collected to charity. Last Year, the average visitor was estimated to have spent $5 on food samples, though some restaurants turned in the tickets they collected to buy food themselves, so the average was difficult to calculate.
Attendance is expected to increase from last year's approximately 20,000; but the Whytes, marketing consultants and convention specialists, have learned that more is not necessarily better. They have recommended that participating restaurants have ready 1,500 to 1,800 food samples a day, and have discouraged from participating those restaurants they thought couldn't handle the demand. Only seven restaurants have dropped out from last year (three because they closed), and the restaurants added were intended to maintain the ethnic, geographic and quality mix the Whytes sought.
Taste of the Town has enough "American saloon" restaurants, according the Whytes, who have aimed for a 30-percent maximum of that style. Restaurants with outside owners, primarily chains, account for another 25 percent. Hotels, which see substanital benefit in participating because the public tends to forget that they have restaurants, make up 15 to 20 percent. And ethnic restaurants, which, often being small, are the most difficult to include, account for the rest. This year, unlike last year, restaurants have asked to be included rather than waited to be solicited.
While small restaurants like Arabian Nights and Le Gaulois were discouraged because of their limited capacity, two Chinatown restaurants -- China Inn and Szechuan -- solved that problem by banding together for a booth.
The important question is, of course, what will be new to eat. The answer is, plenty: chocolate chestnut cake from Suzanne's, smoked buffalo and rattlesnake salad from Dominique's, cha gio from East Wind, and a lobster salad from the Lobster Shed that was the hit of the preview tasting held at the mayor's office. Woodward & Lothrop is selling Connie's Cookies, The View will have carpacco and zucchini curry soup, and the Pawnshop will wash them down with nonalcoholic strawberry daiquiris, with potato skins to nibble. Anyone listening to the comments at the preview tasting would head for the flank steak sandwiches Danker's is preparing on a charcoal frill outside the hotel. And if people took last year's crowd as a guide, they would stake out the Sheraton-Washington's fruit fantasia with fudge sauce, Joe & Mo's potato pancakes (both of which have an "action step," which means that something is being prepared in front of the audience) or Beowulf's white gazpacho (cold and refreshing for a summer day). Chadwick's crab cakes were a hit, but it is back this year with mud pie and chili (not learning from Clyde's, which last year had a hard time selling its chili and this year is selling blintzes and omelets). The Bread Oven's patries went so well that the staff had to refuse to sell them by the box to go. They're back. Bullfeather's bananas Foster make a splash last year, but this year it has switched anyway to a salad. The Prime Rib discovered last year that it is not known for its soup, nor did it become so. This year it is offering clams casino, which the mayor's preview demonstrated to be a wise choice.
Some restaurants last year built in the meausure of their success. Bullfeathers gave out Bull Dollars to be turned in at the restaurant, and Market Inn handed out business cards to be redeemed for a free bowl of soup. The response was strong, and they are back. Some fared less well; the Shoreham's Bombay Bicycle Club did well at the Taste of the Town last year, but the restaurant closed down two days later.
In the past year, the Whytes have been studying the successes and problems of not only their festival, but other food festivals around the country, concluding:
The most stubborn problem is transporting people to and from the site. Chicago's first Taste of Chicago, in 1980, turned into what the press called "a human logjam." Washington's Taste of the Town is urging people to come by double-decker shuttle buses and trolleys from downtown (Capitol Hill, Washington Hilton, 19th Street below Dupont Circle and 13th Street at G), below Dupont Circle and 13th Street at G), Georgetown (Clyde's) and Rosslyn (Marriott). Otherwise, they are suggesting that people take public transportation. With 30 percent of last year's crowd from Maryland and 30 percent from Virginia, they still expect access to the hotel and its parking lots to be jammed.
Privately run festivals work better than those which are, in part, government run. In Philadelphia's 1978 event, some of the restaurants made a profit, but the city lost money. The event was not repeated. (The city is talking about trying again on a grander scale next year, with European chefs being floated in on the QE 2). The most disastrous reports from a food festival, however, came from Rochester, where the World Festival was not only called a bust, but wound up in a fistfight between some of the principals. The most successful of the food festivals have been Toronto's week-long Caravan and New Orleans' 13-year-old Food Festival International, which are privately run. Washington's event, using no public money, is backed by a series of supporters labeled presentor (American Express), sponsors (Wurzburger Hofbrau and Forman Brothers) and patron (Washingtonian magazine), and untitled assistance from Ridgewell's and Kitchen Bazaar. The beneficiary is the Children's Hospital National Medical Center.
Indoor festivals are preferable to outdoor events, the attendance and flow being better controlled. New York's Taste of the Big Apple, a free event with 100 exhibits, ran out of steam the second year, atributed, in part, to the wear and tear on Central Park. That second year, restaurants were serving 1,800 portions an hour; Washington's restaurants are expecting to serve 1,800 a day.
New city regulations prevent the use of propane for cooking. Nor are deep fryers allowed at the booths. That makes life difficult for Taste of the Town. But last year the city, using a health department formula for "intake and outgo," as the Whytes explained, required them to have 10 out-door toilets, which were used by only one person the whole two days. That cost $1,100; this year that requirement has been lifted.
Ultimately, the Whytes hope for 100 restaurants in an annual Taste of the Town. They feel they need more restaurants from Maryland as well as "classic downtown" and "major Italian" restaurants.
They also plan to introduce Taste of the Town to Philadelphia next year, then to Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Cincinnati, St. Louis . . . at which point Don Whyte gets a slight smirk on his face and expansively describes eight jets carrying people from San Francisco to city after city, the admission fee being, say, $8,000, for TASTE OF THE WORLD!