At 25, Seafood Festival takes the best and makes it better
After 25 years, despite huge growth in visitors and vendors, the Ruskin Seafood Festival has managed to keep an intimate feel. Kind of like taking a mini vacation.
By Mitch Traphagen
My first Seafood Festival back in the mid-1990s was a relatively intimate affair packed into whatever open space was available at the former Bahia Beach Resort. At the time, my wife and I were living aboard our boat at the nearby marina so we could just walk over and enjoy the festivities with what always seemed to be beautiful days. We were still pinching ourselves about the incredible weather compared to the cold, snowy Minnesota we had left just a year prior. Being at the Seafood Festival was almost magical; it was like taking a mini-vacation.
Nearly two decades later, things have changed considerably but the magical feeling, the mini-vacation, is not among them. It is a huge event yet it has retained a certain intimacy. The Seafood Festival is still fun, it is still magical and it is a wonderful way to celebrate the coming beautiful winter months. That the spirit of the festival has remained intact is thanks largely to the hard work of Melanie Morrison and a committee of 31 people at the South Shore Chamber of Commerce; people dedicated to producing South Hillsborough’s largest and most famous event.
As big as it has grown over the years, this weekend’s festival, held on Saturday and Sunday at E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin, will likely be the biggest yet — it is the 25th anniversary of the Seafood Festival and 25,000 people are expected to attend. In addition, several new features have been added that are certain to please the ever-growing crowd.
“We have done this for 25 years and we have never gone into the night,” said Morrison, with this her seventh year organizing the event. “This year we are going to be open until 8 p.m. on Saturday night, it will be like a celebratory concert with the great local band, Lady Hawke, on the stage.”
According to Morrison, in past years the festival has always been packed with people at the previous 5 p.m. closing time so this year food vendors, the beer tents and the stage will be open for those who want to enjoy a night out on Saturday night listening to some great music, with some of the best food in one of Tampa Bay’s best locations, all with a cold beer or a soft drink in hand. Lady Hawke is a popular and diverse band based in Apollo Beach.
Do you think the Seafood Festival consists entirely of fried seafood? Think again. Changes are also coming to the food that is offered.
“I’m really excited,” Morrison said. “The one thing we hear every single year is there is all fried food. The reality is, that is what tends to sell. We have vendors come from as far as Michigan or Pennsylvania and this will be their biggest event of the year. It is a food festival but we have to be very careful not to have too much food because the vendors will lose out. But we need to have a wide variety and today people want options and now people are eating healthier so we are adding so many things that we haven’t had before. You tell me what diet you are on and I can tell you where to go.”
Another question that frequently comes up is about South County area restaurants represented at the festival.
“People always ask why we don’t have more local restaurants out there,” Morrison answered. “We are focused on local business, after all. But the restaurants have to be set up to be mobile — the Fish House just can’t pick up and move. But The Mullet Shack will be there and they are one of our favorites. In the boat area, Little Harbor is going to have a tent with cheeseburgers and the theme is cheeseburgers in paradise.”
With more than 100 vendors and so many visitors, planning the flow of the event is a challenge beyond description. For the Seafood Festival committee, nothing is left to chance, nothing is left for the last minute, nothing is haphazard. Thought goes into everything involved, including the placement of the tents.
“I went to [the Seafood Festival] for 3 years before I started with the Chamber,” Morrison said. “The coolest thing to me is to just picture the park before everything is there, before all of the vendors are there. It is literally in my brain where every single thing is. It is months and months of getting the word out and the end is my favorite part because we put it all together. We don’t wait for the last minute for anything. Our deadline is a month early but for an event this big, we want to make things work. We get very few complaints from vendors.”
With more than 100 vendors representing a variety of businesses and organizations, planning the festival is akin to putting together a large puzzle — one with 100 pieces and 25,000 variables.
“This year, we are integrating the nonprofit vendors with the commercial vendors,” Morrison said. “For instance, we can match up Bullet Free Sky with a vendor that will complement them. We really look at how to lay this out. You don’t want a long row of one kind of vendor.”
They know that happy children make for happy parents so the children’s area continues to expand into what Morrison describes as almost a festival all to itself. Home Depot is providing support for what is known as the “Guppies R Guppies Kids Area” containing numerous programs and activities for children, including pony rides.
The festival has offered adult beverages, both beer and wine, for the past three years without problems. It took two years of work to gain approval from the county to offer alcohol on county property. As important as the children’s area is to organizers, so is serving the needs of the adults looking for a mini vacation on an autumn weekend.
Live entertainment on the stage, ranging from the island sound of reggae to another local band, Kozmic Pearl, will run throughout the festival. The seafood will be cooking, the kids playing and information about local businesses will abound. It is all set at one of Florida’s jewels, E.G. Simmons Park, right on Tampa Bay. Somehow the organizers will manage to make a festival with 25,000 visitors into a fun and intimate event, a place to kick back and take a mini-vacation.
“We try to balance things out,” Morrison said. “People spend a lot of money there but they also have a lot of fun. That is really important to us.”
The 25th annual Ruskin Seafood Festival will take place on Saturday, Nov. 2 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, with children under 12 admitted free of charge. Shuttle buses for off-site parking are provided at no charge. There is a $2 per carload entry fee to the park, all of which goes towards Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation. E.G. Simmons is located at 2401 19th Ave. NW in Ruskin.