Generally speaking, if you’re running a chamber of commerce, a group whose mission is to provide support, exposure and, you know, customers to local businesses, when the businesses in town are jam packed with customers, that’s not as much a problem as a cause for celebration.
But in the fall of 2015, with the once-dreaded “shoulder season” being pushed back to at least October, September’s Taste of Whitefish was having no problem attracting visitors. The problem was finding things for them to taste.
“Our restaurants were having a hard time freeing up staff and resources to come out and shut it down for a day or two, or spend two days prepping and really crippling themselves,” Kevin Gartland, the executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce remembered. “(The festival) was as successful as it had ever been, we were selling as many tickets at a higher price than ever, but it wasn’t good for our restaurants.
“It didn’t serve the purpose that had initially been put together; to give people a reason to come here in the offseason.”
So Gartland and his cohorts left behind the fall two years ago and tore a Stumptown tradition down to the studs, scrapping the name, scrapping the date and taking a leap with a brand new concept.
“We took a look at fests around the country, in areas like ours and some areas much bigger than ours, and came up with the idea of trying to put together a festival to really showcase what we do here,” Gartland said. “Showcase the chefs that we have and the restaurants that we have and some of the neat settings that we have … and trying to create that destination event that could draw the foodies over.”
What they came up with was Feast Whitefish, and the weeklong celebration of Whitefish cuisine returns this weekend, trying to make a name for itself and keep the foodies pouring in.
THE TASTE of Whitefish was a steady, if unspectacular, event, and one like you could see in nearly every city around the country for most of the last 30 years.
It’s easy — put up a whole bunch of booths, bring out all of your restaurants, have all of them serve samples of something, charge people a price to get in and taste, then shut it down and wait until next year. But the drag on participating restaurants, especially as they stayed busier into September, caused some to bail on the event entirely after more than 25 years, precipitating its demise.
“To have it stretched out over a week instead of the three-hour period is the key,” Reeves Stanwood of Whitefish’s Piggyback BBQ said.
“I think it (benefits) the restaurants,” he said of the new format. “Everyone gets to go out and flaunt their wares because there’s so many different events that so many people can go and participate in.
“The notoriety for every restaurant was less (at the Taste). This highlights the individual restaurants, the owners, the chefs and puts them in a better one-on-one situation.”
The events Stanwood speaks of are the crux of Feast Whitefish, but they surround a new concept this year, Whitefish’s first-ever Restaurant Week. It replaces six nights of winemaker dinners that featured just a single restaurant each night.
The Restaurant Week, next Monday through Friday, will see a handful of participant step a bit outside the norm to offer a prix fixe menu for either lunch or dinner, and offer it all five days. As of Wednesday, Loula’s Café, Logan’s Grill at Grouse Mountain Lodge, Whitefish Lake Restaurant and The Last Chair Kitchen and Bar had signed up to participate, although Gartland anticipated more would join before Monday.
“We just ask people to show off what they do and be creative with it,” Gartland said. “They’re getting into the spirit of it.”
The menus range from a $22 lunch of salad, entrée (either chicken pot pie or bacon-wrapped cheddar and stout meatloaf) and homemade pie at Loula’s to a $30 dinner featuring grilled and sliced center-cut beef tenderloin at Whitefish Lake Restaurant.
THE SPECIAL events, though, are the real heart of Feast Whitefish.
Lauren Oscilowski, managing partner at Whitefish’s Spotted Bear Spirits, watched the craft distilling business explode across the country and closer to hom, but saw not outlet for distillers to come together and show off their work.
Enter the Distillers Fest — what Oscilowski believes is the only festival of its kind in Montana — back for a second year Friday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Grouse Mountain Lodge, featuring 10 distilleries from around the state.
“It was smashing success last year,” Oscilowski said. “We sold out. All the distillers were jazzed to be there.”
The event is modeled after craft beer festivals that have become ubiquitous in the last decade. Attendees to the Distillers Fest pay $30 for a ticket and pick up a souvenir three-ounce glass, seven tokens for cocktail samples for any of the 10 participating distilleries, and munch on food provided by six local restaurants.
The fest is also a contest for the distilleries, who can earn awards in four judged categories, plus a people’s choice award voted on by attendees.
The following week, a new event takes center stage at Bonsai Brewing Project, the aptly titled Great Bonsai Burger Battle, Friday, May 19 from 5:30-8 p.m. Tickets, like for the Distillers Fest, are $30 and include samples of every participating burger.
“Everybody’s excited about the burger battle,” Gartland said. “I know that’s a winning concept. We’ll carry that one forward; that’s a keeper.”
So far, six entrants — the Craggy Range Bar and Grill, Bonsai, Piggyback BBQ, the Last Chair, the Yeti Den and Marcus Foods — will square off to create Whitefish’s best burger.
Stanwood was picking between two burgers as of Wednesday, either a hot huckleberry or Cajun shrimp and grits burger. Taster portions of whatever Stanwood picks will be handed out, and it’s a chance not just for glory but for the Texan to show off his restaurant’s range.
“We’re known for barbecue but I love to work outside of what the norm is for us,” he said. “We have killer burgers on the menu seven days a week.”
Feast Whitefish wraps up Saturday night at the $125 a plate Grand Gala at Café Kandahar from 6 to 10 p.m., an event that tries to pack as much value as possible into its lofty price tag. Six different chefs will serve a six-course dinner, and each course is paired with wine, a cocktail or craft beer.
Participating chefs include Andy Blanton (Café Kandahar), Dan Crumbaker (Whitefish Lake Restaurant), Jason Geer (Latitude 48), CeCe Andersson (Tupelo Grille), Ben Heese (Whitefish Mountain Resort) and guest chef Jeremy Hansen of Spokane. The food choices include a foie gras profiterole, stuffed pheasant, Waygu Beef short ribs and more.
Limited tickets are available for each special event and can be purchased at www.feastwhitefish.com. There, a full list of participating restaurants and menus is also available.
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.