By Nicole Danielli and Michael Fritz
Attendees and seafood lovers alike filtered in and out of the Curtis Hixon park throughout the two day festival, purchasing seafood and listening to live music. A post on the event’s website states, “The event will be a unique blending of food, music and visual entertainment.” While the visual entertainment aspect remains unclear, even after attending, the menus of the vendors had an impressive variety while still mainly focusing on seafood.
Combine the traveling, overwhelming, aroma of freshly cooked seafood with the music wafting through the air it is a unique blend indeed. Even across the river at the University of Tampa, everything smelled like lobster and sounded like funk music.
In their inaugural year, they drew an impressive crowd for a food festival. Jordan Overwater, the logistics director for Paragon Festivals, the company who puts on the Tampa Seafood Festival, said that the city estimated “ten to fifteen thousand” people to be in attendance. It didn’t look that many were there at any given time; however, the festival easily had that number of unique visitors throughout the weekend. Unsurprisingly, the festival was its most packed around lunch time each day.
The website for the festival lists 52 different sponsors, an impressive number for any event. “Sponsors actually come to us,” says Overwater, “they show what they can bring to the table and what we can offer them in terms of advertising.” Sponsorship ranged from media groups, tent rental companies, grocery stores, phone providers, insurance companies, The Rays, the City of St. Pete, and home appliance manufactures. They even had a number of high-end car sponsorships including Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Cadillac, Bentley, and Aston Martin.
Many of the sponsors had tents set up to display their goods or services. Some of the higher-end sponsors had their cars sitting off to the side of the of the VIP section near the stage.
The VIP tent was located closest to the river and served as a shaded oasis for the festival’s higher spenders. At $130 a ticket, patrons of the VIP tent were able to enjoy an open raw bar serving raw oysters, steamed snow crab, and steamed peel-and-eat shrimp, as well as a premium bar serving top shelf drinks. The VIP tent had its own dedicated serving staff and was in a prime viewing area of the main stage.
As promised, local seafood was the mainstay of the weekend. Jordan Overwater proudly informed us before the event that there were 22 different food and drink vendors for attendees to buy from over the weekend. The servings included anything from crawfish, shrimp, crab, grouper, turkey legs, lobster, pork, and catfish. At a couple of vendors, shellfish was steamed atop mounds of corn and vegetables in large woks, others had grills nearly full of fish fillets. Seafood paella was also a popular menu item.
No matter what kind of seafood you like, you could find at least one vendor who had exactly that. Smoked, steamed, grilled, blackened, fried, battered, and boiled, they had it all.
There was also plenty helpings of sweet treats that customers could order for dessert such as shaved ice, frappes, crepes, smoothies, kettle corn, and ice cream. Mike Delaney from Pinellas County, 42 , said while waiting in line at the Sarasota Seafood Company tent, “There are so many options I don’t know which to choose!”
In addition to the food vendors, Overwater said they had over 60 different artists from all over the country who set up booths to vend their pieces. With the sheer number of artists present, they could have very well branded the festival as the “Tampa Seafood, Music, and Arts Festival.” Vendors offered many artistic peices including sculptures, paintings, wind chimes, knick knacks, and even coffee tables in the shape of surfboards. Paragon also curates a large number of art shows across the southeast.
On the main stage, acts played many genres to the hungry customers. If you look at other seafood festivals that Paragon puts on in the region, you might notice some of the same names on the lineups that we saw in Tampa. The musical stylings ranged from rock to reggae, blues to funk, and oldies to jam music. Notable acts included Reverend Gary and The Funk, The Black Honkeys, the Greg Billings Band, and the Sarasota Steel Pan Band.
The Florida Rambler includes this statement with its list of Seafood Festivals in Florida: “Some Florida seafood festivals change dates or disappear altogether, so be sure to check this list for updates and follow the links provided for more information.” Seafood festivals in Tampa, and all of Florida for that matter, come and go like the wind. In 2016 alone, the Tampa Bay area had three seafood festivals focusing almost exclusively on the Florida native stone crab. In 2018, only Frenchy’s festival in Clearwater still remains; it is entering its 34th year.
A proper seafood festival needs multiple vendors to even be a legitimate festival, otherwise it’s pretty much just a restaurant. Vendors only sign up to vend at a festival if they think they will profit during the event. With this comes a lot of costs: employees, food that doesn’t get sold, vending fees, etc. The festival itself wants to make money and it has its own costs including employees, venue costs, staging, and paying the bands. With so many people who need to be paid, a poor turnout in just one year can end a festival for good.
Especially with festivals in Curtis Hixon, they can be a hit or miss. The inaugural South of Southern Music and Arts Festival kicked off earlier this month in the park and had somewhere around 15 people in attendance, with the whole park fenced off for the event. Despite having an impressive amount of acts and visual artists, no one was willing to pay the $8 to get in. We’ll see next year if this festival is still happening.
In contrast, it looks like Paragon’s festival was plenty profitable. The bar was crowded both days and vendors had long lines far after the lunch rush.
Dates have already been announced for the 2019 version of the festival, returning back to Curtis Hixon for a second year in a row. Paragon’s experienced approach has been established because they have 27 upcoming festivals listed on their website. Most of them take place in the Tampa Bay or Sarasota area, and most are either a seafood festival or a fine arts festival. April 28-29th Paragon is hosting the Lakewood Ranch Fine Art Festival. May 5-6th Paragon will be hosting the Venice Seafood & Music Festival in Centennial Park.