Bursting out of Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena, last year the event moved outdoors to Norwalk’s Calf Pasture Beach to accommodate its growing chowda-heads. I had the opportunity to interview Chief Chowda-head, aka, the Founder of Chowdafest, Jim Keenan.
Tell me about the growth of Chowdafest
It's been fun to watch someone come one year, then return the next year with family and friends. Then those friends bring more friends the following year. It's been exponential. We're the poster child for how powerful word of mouth can be. Watching Chowdafest grow from a few hundred people our first year and seven years later having upwards of ten thousand people has been incredible. Our growth isn't just in attendance either. We have a waiting list of restaurants who want to compete and our sponsor list gets better every year.
And a new venue this year. Why?
Chowdafest is a such a terrific culinary competition that it's worth traveling from all over to be part of it. We've become a true destination event and the last thing we want to do is put a bad taste in someone's mouth if it's a hassle trying to get to and from the event. Sherwood Island State Park is so convenient. It has it's own exit off I-95 with three lanes in and out of the park. Add their idyllic shoreline location and you have the quintessential backdrop for a chowder competition. Even bus companies are now offering trips from other parts of New England to come and experience Chowdafest so we're excited we can showcase Connecticut's oldest and finest state park in the process.
Did you ever imagine Chowdafest would be where it is today: attracting people from well beyond NY/CT, securing amazing partnerships with the World’s food leaders
I planned for it but I never thought we would be so popular so quickly. A lot of things have to fall into place to continue to build on the success of the previous year. Thankfully that's been the case.
What do you attribute to the success?
A lot of things. First, it's a cool idea. You get a spoon, ballot and pencil, then go sample unlimited chowder, soup & bisque, then rate them on a scale from 7 to 10.5. Chowdafest is a true people's choice event where they determine the best, not a magazine or food expert.
Every year we raise the level of competition. Chowdafest is invite only and we limit our event to 40 restaurants. This fall we'll have restaurants from every New England state competing and twelve in total. Even America's #1 chowder is in the competition and they're coming from Seattle to compete so we feature some of the best culinary talent anywhere.
You got to offer variety too. Our competition features four categories with ten restaurants competing in each. One category is just for classic New England Clam chowder. Another is just for Rhode Island (clear broth) and Manhattan (tomato based) clam chowders. One category is just for creative chowders and we have a category just for soup & bisque.
While our focus is on the chowder and soup, we're much more! We realize that some people have dietary concerns so we offer other sampling opportunities. We have a fun Italian themed section called “Ciao”dafest where you can sample freshly baked artisan breads, pasta sauces and of course, minestrone soup. We have a ChowdaMex section where you can sample chips, salsa's and even a chicken tortilla soup that's entered in the competition this year. We have a beverage bog where you can sample juices, water, and fall flavored coffees. We have a farm to table section where you can sample local milk, ice cream, cheese, yogurt and more. Our kids section rocks too. Not only do kids get to vote, they get free chef hats to decorate plus other fun activities. Kids of all ages will love sampling a variety of Goldfish and Pez candy too.