Meet the Chowda-head behind New England's premier culinary festival

Chowdafest is coming to Sherwood Island State Park in Westport CT on Sunday, October 11.  

From very humble beginnings at the Unitarian Church on Lyons Plains Road in Westport, Chowdafest has grown by leaps and bounds, (or by littlenecks and cherrystones) and is now considered one of the most popular (and tasty) festivals in New England. And to all started with a spoon.

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. 

All this just for $15 adults and $5 kids (6-12) with free parking makes Chowdafest a great value.  Add the fact their participation helps a good cause and you have a recipe for success.

Tell me about your new charity partner and why you chose “Community Plates” 

Tying a food festival to hunger was a no-brainer.  Hunger is a surprisingly big problem as 1 out of 6 people face some form of food insecurity.  What's very cool about Community Plates is they're alleviating hunger by rescuing food from grocery stores, restaurants and farms that would ordinarily be thrown out.  They're food rescue model also supports sustainability which is also an important to us as Chowdafest is a zero waste event.  All our cups and spoons can be composted so we literally divert ton's of typical food event waste from landfills and incineration to composting facilities. With the help of Sustainable America, we've become a role model for other events to be more ecologically responsible.  There are a great deal of synergies between Community Plates and Chowdafest so it's been a nice relationship.

Will Chowdafest continue to grow? Do you want it to? 

Yes and yes!  I think if we will continue to stay true to ourselves, more people will continue to come and that's great for our restaurants and sponsors.  It's also great for CT tourism.  We know Sherwood Island can accommodate more people for at least a few years but when and if we become so popular that we have long lines and it's no fun to come, we'll have to examine limiting ticket sales, selling tickets for certain hours or expanding the event to more than one day which has it's own challenges. I do know we plan to keep the event a value and if we continue to meet or exceed expectations, they will come!

Please don’t take offense, but coordinating such an event must take an enormous amount of time. Do you have a ‘real’ job?

Funny, I'm asked that a lot.  If I told you yes, would you believe me?  I own a marketing firm called Twist Brandraising which specializes in experiential and cause related marketing.  I might be guilty of being a bit more passionate about Chowdafest than other projects but can you blame a self-described chowda-head?

Anything you wish I asked?

Just that all effort that goes into planning and orchestrating Chowdafest doesn't mean much without the help of incredible volunteers who make it happen the day of the event.  It's a shared success story and their help is greatly appreciated.  Chowdafest would not have happened without the terrific restaurants and sponsors who bought into the vision early on too.  

Submitted by New Fairfield, CT

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