Today’s Taste-of-ALL is probably the only place in West Virginia — or anywhere — where you can find fried trout with moonshine glaze and bacon-wrapped meatloaf under the same roof.
Thousands of visitors are expected to cram into Charleston’s Civic Center today from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to sample some of the most original dishes local restaurants have to offer.
But on the other side of the counters, restaurateurs are looking for benefits as well — the kind of exposure that doesn’t come from a photo or a slogan.
“Hopefully I can get a little bit more recognition for what I do,” said Antonio Lewis, co-owner of A Taste of N’Awlins catering, who is bringing New Orleans-style gumbo and jambalaya to the event.
It’s been a long road to Charleston for Lewis, 58, and his wife, Tatia Lewis. The couple was caught up in the disastrous Hurricane Katrina, and eventually packed up and moved to Charleston in 2010.
They started the catering company, but the two are hoping Taste-of-ALL provides them with the kind of good publicity that would help them open a restaurant this year.
“Hopefully, by the grace of God, he’ll open some doors for us this year,” Antonio Lewis said. “I’m trying to get a small business loan and give the people of Charleston a different taste of food.”
Annika Stensson, senior manager of research communications with the National Restaurant Association, said attending food festivals can help restaurants in ways traditional advertising can’t.
“Owners get to connect with members of their community face-to-face, building awareness and goodwill, rather than reaching them via traditional marketing channels,” Stensson said. “They have an opportunity to reach new potential guests, as well as build relationships with returning customers.”
Adrian Wright, one of the owners of Dem 2 Brothers and a Grill, wants to reach a broader audience.
He opened a restaurant on the West Side in December after starting out from a corner hot dog cart. It’s a family-owned restaurant; on Thursday, his mother Virginia Wright and some of his brothers were working at the tail-end of the lunch rush.
“I’d like to let some different people from the area taste my food,” Wright said. “We’re more of a barbecue-soul food restaurant — it ain’t just barbecue. We give people a little bit of everything.”
Wright isn’t just going to Taste-of-ALL. He used to have “Soul Food Sundays” at the restaurant, but recently his schedule has been jam-packed with festivals: Live on the Levee, Capitol City Biker Bash, the West Side Weiner Dog Race and the West Virginia Freedom Festival in Logan.
The family has plans to open a second location this fall in London, in eastern Kanawha County.
Wright said a happy customer is some of the best advertising you can get.
“You go out to a festival and you get people from a little bit of everywhere in West Virginia,” Wright said. “My motto is tell a friend, come again. The word of mouth is the best thing out there as far as advertising.”
Stensson agreed that a good buzz around town is some of the best advertisting a restaurant can have.
“Recommendations from family members and friends remain the top trusted source for consumers when it comes to choosing a restaurant,” she said.
At Taste-of-ALL, there’s also prestige to be gained. Food writers from the Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail will be there to award a food critics award. Bridget Lancaster, of “America’s Test Kitchen,” will also be on hand to do interviews with restaurant owners for an episode set to air in July. There will also be a People’s Choice Award for attendees to vote on their favorite appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks.
“We did really well last year and won best dessert,” said Veronica Hashey, the owner of 5 Corners Cafe. “We’re going to try to win it all this year.”
Hashey said that she hopes the festival will help with her new branding effort. Once considered a sandwich place, 5 Corners has ventured into other dishes, Hashey said. This year, the restaurant will feature its meatloaf, spicy sweet macaroni salad, pan fried green beans and bread pudding.
Besides awarding the winners of the events plaques, Emily Wall, an event organizer with Generation Charleston, said that Taste-of-ALL is designed to benefit local restaurants.
She said organizers have been busy promoting the more than 20 restaurants on social media and by printing out brochures with the restaurants’ names.
“We want this to be that event for restaurants to get that exposure to grow,” Wall said. “The whole premise is for restaurants to show what they can do for people who haven’t visited their restaurant and try to get them back.”
More information on Taste-of-ALL can be found at festivallcharleston.com.
Reach Jack Suntrup at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5100.