Let me start by saying that the issue of New Tampa Neighborhood News that comes out every year a few weeks before the annual Taste of New Tampa® (like this one — this year’s Taste will be held on Sunday, March 11, 1 p.m.-4 p.m., at Wharton High; see page 1 for details) is always difficult for me. More on this below, but first, a little background music (or noise).

The Taste and this publication — from the moment I purchased it in February 1994 — have always gone hand in hand. Although I had only published one issue and had only been open for maybe two months at the time, I took a booth at the very first Taste (which was held at Hunter’s Green Country Club, or HGCC) and knew, almost immediately, that I wanted to get more involved with what almost instantly became New Tampa’s best-attended single-day annual event.

I joined the Board of the old New Tampa Community Council (NTCC) which put on the event that same year and, in 1995, when the Taste was held in Capt. Nathaniel Hunter Park in Hunter’s Green, I already had started helping get more restaurants to take part in it. In almost every year from 1996-2006, I either was the restaurant chair, the chair of the entire event and/or the president of the NTCC and my primary goal was always to increase restaurant participation in the Taste.

And, since 2006, even though I have no longer been involved in putting on the Taste myself or been a member of the board of directors of the New Tampa Chamber of Commerce (the entity which replaced the old NTCC a couple of years ago and has put on the Taste ever since), I have still always tried to encourage as many restaurants as possible to get involved and done everything I could to help promote what is still my favorite event to attend in our area year after year.

I can still remember places like Gladstone’s Grilled Chicken and the Outback Steakhouse on E. Fowler Ave. both being on hand around the HGCC clubhouse at the first Taste in 1994. Because New Tampa had only a few actual restaurants of its own at that time, eateries in Temple Terrace did everything they could to attract diners from our area.

I, of course, had already eaten at the Outback on Fowler Ave., but (even though our first office was around the corner at the time) I had never even heard of Gladstone’s — which, by the way, is still thriving (and delicious) in the same location — before that Taste. Gladstone’s booth was a portable version of the amazing indoor grills that flame-cooked the same perfect grilled chicken that I already loved when I was living on E. 63rd St. in Manhattan in the 1980s — and no other restaurant in the Tampa Bay area I had heard of at that time offered this type of chicken.

In other words, if Gladstone’s got absolutely nothing else out of being at the 1994 Taste (and I know that’s not true), it at least got one customer for life out of the event — a customer who has literally (and happily) spent thousands of dollars there over the years.

Unlike businesses, which have to either pay cash or make in-kind donations of items of equal value (such as advertising in local media) in order to have a booth at the Taste, restaurants can have a space at the event for “free.” However, those restaurants are expected to provide samples of their cuisine for as much of the three hours of the Taste each year as they can. Whether your restaurant serves great grilled chicken, pizza or Cuban-style mojo pork, there is obviously a pretty sizable cost in creating and serving 1,000 or more tastes of that cuisine.

But, here’s the thing. Restaurant owners who see annual attendance figures at the Taste of 5,000 or more wrongly assume they will have to provide that same huge number of samples in order to participate. However, when you talk to restaurateurs who have been consistent Taste participants (like Robert Garofano of Ciccio’s Lodge in Tampa Palms), they will tell you that they average around 1,500 “tastes” every year. Smaller, less-well-known mom-and-pop eateries are told that even if they can only do 1,000 small samples for the event, they can still have a booth, still chat with potential customers and, best of all, still give away menus and coupons to anyone who walks by their booth — even after they run out of food.

When I was the restaurant chair of the Taste, I peaked at more than 40 restaurants and beverage donors one year and had 30-40 eateries involved pretty much every year. That number has been a little lower since then, but thanks to the generosity of the restaurants and supermarkets who have participated, I think it’s still safe to say that no one has ever left a Taste of New Tampa®  still hungry.

Even so, with the local economy still lagging and more mom-and-pops concerned about their bottom lines than ever, the “free” cost to have a booth at the Taste may not feel quite so free. And, perhaps the biggest challenge for the Chamber these days is that there are so many corporate-owned-and-operated restaurants in our area that don’t feel a compulsive need to attract more customers this way, even though these franchises and such are the ones who have the most resources to be able to do the event.

So, on behalf of both myself and the Chamber Board, when you visit your favorite local restaurants these next couple of weeks, I hope you’ll ask them if they’re going to be at this year’s Taste. I promise it’ll be a win-win situation for everyone involved!

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