DOWNEY - Despite a bout of rainy weather earlier in the day, the Taste of Downey event on Friday, September 30 enjoyed a near-constant flow of people during the nearly four-hour-long food festival and art walk.As of Monday, October 3, the numbers were still being tallied, but Brian Saeki, director of community development, estimates that about 2,000 people attended the event. Whether or not all were ticket-holding attendees remains unclear. The city paid the Los Angeles-based event planner, Community Arts Resources (CARS), $65,000 to assist in reshaping the two-year-old event, though the city still maintained some control of the planning process. "CARS handled the logistics: the lighting, renting booths, communicating with the Health Department, providing the tables and chairs, coordinating with the band, and some restaurant recruitment. The city handled a majority of the restaurant recruitment, the traffic, and the art walk," Saeki said. "CARS was great, they did everything we asked them to do, but at this point I can't say for sure if we'll be working with them again. It becomes a cost issue. We'd like to replicate the effort next year, but we're considering keeping the planning in-house." There is no denying that CARS' marketing campaign was effective. Many tasters were from nearby cities and decided to attend the event after encountering newspaper ads, flyers, and posters around the city. Southgate resident Sharon King was at the Krikorian with her family just hours before the Taste of Downey and after seeing a poster in the window at the movie theatre, decided the food festival would be a good way to cap off her Friday night. "I thought it would be fun to come and find out about new restaurants, but I already know of a lot of these places," King said. "I never heard of the Mission Mexican Grill and their food here tonight tastes great, so I'll definitely pay them a visit." This is something that was echoed by Brenice Stumps, who's lived in Downey for half a century. Though Stumps said she was enjoying the event, she too was aware of most of the restaurants and had eaten at many of them. Stumps made an important distinction: the food she ate at the event would influence where she would- or would not- eat while dining out in Downey. Meaning, participating in the event had the power to strongly impact your business, which is why some of the restaurants featured seemed a little puzzling. Of the nearly 30 restaurants that lined the street in front of City Hall, almost a third were successful chain restaurants not specific to the city of Downey, such as Acapulco, Olive Garden, and Jamba Juice. Jae Crichlow, a longtime Downey resident, is the owner of Se Cheese Confections and Pastries, a dessert catering company that works out of a commercial kitchen in the city. Crichlow, whose booth was featured near the art walk, hopes to eventually open an eatery in Downey showcasing her upscale desserts. After hearing of the event, Crichlow decided to participate in hopes of making her presence known in the city, but she too noticed the participation of national chain restaurants in a food festival intended to showcase the best the city had to offer. "One of the reasons the Taste of Downey may not have had many local restaurants is because it was planned by a firm in Los Angeles," Crichlow said. "I found City Hall to be very warm and inviting of my business. However, an outside firm may not know the city well enough to understand the significance of a Sizzling Thai on Stewart & Grey Road or why we love All American." Not to mention the fact that a food festival drawing a sizeable crowd presents the opportunity to promote local, independent restaurants that don't necessarily have the money needed for extensive advertising. As a 29-year-old Taste of Downey attendee pointed out, in some ways, it felt like a wasted opportunity. "They shouldn't allow some of these places to participate," Martha Gonzalez said. "If I wanted Olive Garden I could go up the street or go to any other city. This is Downey's chance to promote the places we're not familiar with and to give them a chance to be successful. All of these chains can afford all the promotion in the world. Why spend $20 on a ticket to eat at places we can eat at in any city? I've already eaten at Acapulco's 100 times; I don't want to try their food at a food festival." According to Saeki, well before the event is scheduled to take place, a letter is sent out to each restaurant in Downey informing them of the Taste of Downey and inviting them to participate. Members of the city planning department also eat at the restaurants they'd like to have participate and then follow up with those who seem interested. "There's no criteria in place for who can participate in the event," Saeki said. "We had between 15-20 small restaurants that wanted to participate, but couldn't because they couldn't keep their restaurant open on Friday night and staff their booth. It would be great to only feature mom and pop restaurants, but for many it's not realistic because finding the time and resources is too problematic. We wanted a true mix of what Downey has to offer and restaurant chains are a part of that. Including a chain like Bob's Big Boy makes sense because of the restaurant's history in our city." While many residents were opinionated when it came to the restaurants featured, it seemed everyone had good things to say about the art walk organized by Downey Art Vibe, a non-profit organization run by Valentin Flores. A small area was cordoned off to feature the diverse works of 15 local artists, including featured artist Jamie Lennon Rowland. Rowland, who sold two of his pieces at the event, was grateful to have his artwork seen by such a wide array of people. "I was blown away by the response I received. I work out of my garage and maybe show four or five people my work over the span of a month. I went from that, to being able to share it with a couple of thousand people in one night," Rowland said. "I think events like this are becoming more important. People are getting fed up with consumerism and car culture. Every city is starting to look the same and I think people are becoming more interested in making Downey a better, more creative place. Things like the art walk open up different channels of communication in the city and it's great to see things becoming more localized." As Rowland suggested, events like the Taste of Downey are about much more than food or art. They're about fostering a sense of community and meeting your own community in a way that until recently, was becoming increasingly rare. During the course of a single evening, where else in the city could you eat pizza next to the former mayor; chat with a local jazz singer who happens to be the significant other of the trombone player in the Wiseguys Big Band Machine; or meet an inspiring teenage volunteer named Rosalinda Rodriguez who considers it her life's calling to help kids get off the street and succeed? So despite its growing pains, in this way, the Taste of Downey was a success and the food was just icing on the cake.
********** Published: October 06, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 25