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Even after 25 years, Bite of Seattle still delicious
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sure, there's a bit of Chicago and a nibble of New York in the history of the Bite of Seattle, marking its 25th annual mass munching this weekend. But humankind's love of a quick snack in a pleasant outdoor setting actually dates back to the Garden of Eden.
Seems there was a waitress named Eve, a patron named Adam and a sinfully delicious treat called the Forbidden Fruit. Though it was fun while it lasted, the Landlord objected, and the event got kicked out of the Garden after just one bite.
Fast forward to A.D. 1982, when a handful of Seattle-area restaurant owners were commiserating the effects of a sharp Reagan-era recession.
"We were bemoaning the fact that we were all reporting smaller customer counts," said Alan Silverman, then owner of Barnaby's in Bellevue. "I said let's do something together to get the public thinking about dining out again."
Two years before, Silverman had attended a gigantic public chow-fest called the Taste of Chicago, and two years before that, the food-friendly 72nd Street Fair in Manhattan. At both, restaurants offered appetizer-size versions of their actual menu items.
"The only thing I didn't like was that they were on asphalt, just being on a street," recalls Silverman. "I wanted to do something in a park."
Selling Seattle park officials on a new kind of outdoor event was a slow go, Silverman said, until he got a chance to talk directly to then Mayor Charles Royer, to plead that a healthy restaurant industry boosts a city's vitality.
Location: Seattle Center
Hours, dates: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Admission: Free (until you start buying food!)
Number of restaurants and food vendors: More than 60
Entertainment: More than 150 acts on five stages
Price of entrees: Up to $5, or $6 for combo plates*
* $10 for a meal at Tom Douglas' Flavors of America
Bite by the numbers
Miles of electric cable: 15
Tons of trash generated: 60
Flats of strawberries: 1,500
Pounds of ribs: 2,100
Ears of corn: 7,500
Pounds of ice: 175,000
People expected: 425,000
425-283-5050 or www.biteofseattle.com
Royer liked the idea, agreeing to have his brother, Deputy Mayor Bob Royer, open a few doors.
"It was already April and we wanted to do this in July, so we had to move fast," Silverman recalls. "It was Bob Royer, Virginia Swanson [of the park department] and me. We basically wrote all the rules."
And boom. The Bite was born. About 50 food booths crowded in a small patch of ground outside Evans Pool at Green Lake.
A serving of ribs could be had for $1.25, a hunk of alder-smoked salmon for $2.95, even a half-lobster went for $3.50 — the top price vendors were allowed to charge. "We thought we might get 20,000 to 25,000 people, and we ended up with something like 75,000," Silverman said.
No one was more surprised than the restaurant owners. "They came down in their alligator shoes and gabardine slacks just to see how their booths were doing," Silverman said, "and within a half-hour they were pitching in, rolling up their sleeves, getting barbecue sauce on their alligator shoes and sending back to their restaurants for more food."
And then there was that little business with the fire marshal. In the rush to put the event together, promoters hadn't cleared every detail with fire officials, and the number of propane canisters in the cooking tents went far beyond what code allows.
Conveniently, though, the city's fire marshal was out of town until the afternoon of the second day.
"Someone told me, 'Hey, the fire marshal's looking for you,' " Silverman said. "So I assigned this one gal — I said to her, 'Your job is to make sure he doesn't find me until late this afternoon.' I figured he wasn't going to shut us down then."
The 1982 Bite was such a "success" that Silverman figures he lost about $18,000 covering the furnishings, electricity, water and getting mountains of garbage hauled away. But rather than being deterred, he was determined to keep the event going.
"In the restaurant business I have always said that if the people show up I could figure out a way to make a buck on it ... I knew this could be a great project and we could figure out how to not lose money on it."
Not everyone was so enthusiastic, particularly neighboring business that lost parking space and customers to the Bite.
After four years at Green Lake, city officials directed the Bite to move to Seattle Center, a switch Silverman initially resisted.
"We looked upon Green Lake as sort of like a Camelot atmosphere. The grass. The yellow-and-white striped tents. The lake. ... We had an investment there."
In retrospect, he concedes moving the Bite to the Seattle Center helped it grow and thrive. More parking. Better access by bus and monorail. More stages for entertainment. And a lucrative feature that had been banned at the Green Lake site: beer and wine.
By 1987, promoters figured out one way to help the event make money was to sell its name, and it became the Rainier Beer Bite of Seattle. These days, both ends of the name are for sale. Its full title: 2006 Comcast Bite of Seattle presented by Crystal Springs Water.
The Bite is one of the few Seattle Center events that actually makes money for the city, said Center marketing director David Heurtel. By collecting 10 percent of the food and wine revenue and 20 percent of the beer and spirit sales, the Center made $89,000 after covering its costs last year.
But Heurtel said money isn't the biggest benefit. "It's a big plus for us. It definitely brings a diverse audience to Seattle Center, and that's our mission ... being a gathering place for all communities."
Selection of the food vendors promotes that diversity. Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern and European cuisines are represented, as well as regional dishes from around the United States.
In 1990, Silverman left the restaurant business to work full-time at his event-staging Festivals Inc., now run by his daughter, Jody May. The company's regular events include the Bite-like Taste of Tacoma, held earlier this month.
Over the years "bite" and "taste" events run by others have spring up coast to coast, including the Bite of Edmonds, Aug. 11-13 this year.
At the opening of this year's Bite of Seattle, a special award will be given to The Frankfurter, the only eatery represented every year the event's been held.
Although it will be serving five kinds of hot dogs, The Frankfurter really made its mark at the Bite with its beverage specialty, fresh-squeezed lemonade with the lemon rind in the drink.
To handle Bite-size crowds, owner Stan Moffett said the company developed a fast-fill machine to produce up to 800 servings an hour, with the juice of one full lemon in each.
How many lemons will he need this year? Somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000, depending almost entirely on the weather. "If the sun is shining, people want lemonade," said Moffett. "People want to feel that sunshine on their skin."
Silverman, now semi-retired, said times are quite different that when he started the Bite. "The restaurant industry here right now is very healthy. Does it need the Bite? No. But the Bite is one of those festivals that has become an institution."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company