By CHRISTOPHER EMCH
BEACH HAVEN—Cool temperatures and windy skies were the only signs of fall on Long Beach Island Sept. 29, as the crowd that descended for the 24th annual Chowderfest Weekend made it look like the hottest day in July.
Thousands flocked to Beach Haven Borough on LBI to take part in the end-of-season event, beginning Sept. 29 with Merchant Mart and continuing on Sept. 30 with the highly anticipated Chowder Cook-Off Classic. Donning clam hats and vibrant Chowderfest t-shirts, participants contributed to a fun-filled atmosphere that suited the theme for this year’s festivities: “Clamaritaville.”
Both days’ events took place beneath white tents on the recreational field and parking lots between 9th Street and Taylor Avenue. Surrounded by local icons like Schooner’s Warf, Bay Village, and Thundering Surf water park, the venue lent Chowderfest a decidedly LBI flavor.
Day 1: Clamming for Steals at Merchant Mart
The open-admission Merchant Mart drew a packed crowd, where live entertainment and a seemingly unlimited supply of draft beers served visitors as they perused vendor offerings.
More than 60 local businesses set up displays, selling everything from sweatshirts to jewelry to baked goods at bargain prices.
“It’s a good representation of our membership,” said Lori Pepenella, destination marketing director for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce. All vendors that were present belong to the chamber, which operates Chowderfest Weekend, she said.
Pepenella anticipated a turnout of about 25,000 guests over the course of the two days; 60 percent she expected to be from outside the local region, due in no small part to positive press.
“The power of earned media exposure is very important,” she said. As an example, CBS New York ranked Chowderfest one of New Jersey’s “7 Best Fall Festivals” for 2012.
“Chowderfest really captures the essence of LBI,” Pepenella said, likening the festival environment to that of California for its “clean, laid back feel.”
For island business owners, the Chowderfest meant one last surge in customer traffic during the post-Labor Day doldrums.
“It’s the busiest weekend of the year,” said James Kennard, manager of Bankston’s vintage gift store at 615 N. Bay Ave. in Beach Haven. “It’s huge.”
Bankston’s and other stores on the blocks surrounding Chowderfest set up sidewalk sales to attract visitors heading to and from the fair.
A group from Pennsylvania State University viewed this year’s Chowderfest as an opportunity to help others.
Standing on street corners with large coffee cans, student Colleen Dalrymple and her peers collected donations for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, which benefits pediatric cancer research.
“We’re the largest student-run philanthropic organization in the world,” she said.
Day 2: May the Best Chowder Win
The turnout for the Chowder Cook-Off Classic was even larger than that for Merchant Mart, with standing room only under the tents that now housed chowder competitors.
General admission to the event was $20; an additional $30 granted visitors VIP benefits, which included a Chowderfest t-shirt and admission one hour ahead of the 11:00 a.m. start.
Seventeen restaurants were in the running, divided between tents for white (New England) and red (Manhattan) clam chowder. Most contenders were local, with the exception of two—Chart House and Phillips Seafood—from Atlantic City.
An employee serving chowder samples from Black Whale said it was her first year working at Chowderfest.
“There’s been a really good turn out,” she said. She was more than confident that her restaurant would place among the top competitors for best red chowder.
“We’ve perfected classic chowder,” she said. “Killed it. In the bag.”
A worker representing Chicken or the Egg—a Beach Haven hallmark—showed similar faith in his establishment’s chowder expertise.
“Everyone loves the chowder. It’s our second year doing red,” he said, adding that Chicken or the Egg has placed every year since it began competing at Chowderfest a decade ago.
He said this and last year’s Chowderfest had a “beautiful turnout” after a string of bad weather in previous seasons.
Many visitors to Chowderfest Weekend were first-time attendees. Jill Simon, of Margate, said she came to this year’s festival after hearing about it from a friend.
“It’s really crowded,” she said. Her favorite sampling at the event was red chowder from Stefano’s Seafood & Pasta.
Another first-time attendee travelled all the way from Boston to partake in this year’s festivities.
“Initially there was some line confusion but it’s awesome,” he said. “Everyone’s been really friendly.” Chart House was at the top of his list for best white chowder.
After enjoying unlimited samples, visitors voted for the best red and white chowders at the fair. The final results were revealed around 4:00 p.m., with Howard’s Restaurant and Stefano’s taking Grand Prize in the white and red categories, respectively. As employees predicted, both Chicken or the Egg and Black Whale placed in the red competition as runners up.
On the Monday after Chowderfest, the traffic lights on Long Beach Boulevard turned to blinking yellow, signaling the end of a bustling summer season. Area restaurants have eight months to perfect their chowder before the next wave of vacationers arrives Memorial Day 2013.