BELMAR — When the New Jersey Seafood Festival started three decades ago, it was a one-day event that attracted approximately 10,000 people. Now, it’s held over three days and brings more than 200,000 from across the state and surrounding areas.
“I think that this year’s crowds have been record-breaking,” said Mary Brabazon, the event’s coordinator and Belmar’s tourism administrator. “It’s really fantastic.”
Sunday marked the last day of the festival, which kicked off on Friday and features dozens of food vendors, arts and craft sellers and music. Brabazon could not put an exact tally on how many people in total attended the event, but said it’s “in excess” of 200,000.
Pat O’Keefe was one of three people who were in charge of organizing the event 29 years ago. O’Keefe said the original festival had seven restaurants under one giant tent. There was no music, craft tables or sponsors.
“It was an immediate success,” said O’Keefe, now the secretary of the Belmar Historical Society. “People loved it from the get-go.”
O’Keefe said the festival used to be held on just a Saturday. About two to three years ago, they decided to add the additional day.
“It was a small start for an event that has stood the test of time,” O’Keefe said.
The swelling of the crowd size, Brabazon said, can be attributed to the event’s strong tradition, which harbors a family-friendly environment.
“It’s a wonderful atmosphere,” Brabazon said. “There’s entertainment, there’s children’s activities — a lot of food. And we’re a very friendly town. If you talk to anybody here, they’re having a good time.”
It’s that sort of environment that drove Simply Southern Cuisine, a repeat vendor for years, to establish a brick-and-mortar business in Belmar this past year.
Co-owner Rasheed Simmons, who took a break from dumping one-pound filets of catfish in the fryer, said the crowd has been so great over the years that coming to Belmar was a no-brainer.
“We had such a large following at the festival over the years that I thought it made sense to bring our product as an entirety to the area,” Simmons said.
As Simmons’ crew doled out orders of crab cakes, sweet potato hush puppies and homemade potato slices, he explained how the made-to-order freshness on display translates to his restaurant on 8th Avenue in the Belmar Mall.
“Every order is made fresh, as you can see here,” he said. “It’s the same way at our restaurant. So I figured, we have success here why not have success as a restaurant.”
Along with Simply Southern, long lines could be seen at Ocean City-based Ike’s Famous Crabcakes and Point Lobster Company, a Point Pleasant establishment.
Jessica Yim and Tim Chang made the trip to Belmar from Langhorne, Pa., after hearing about the seafood festival on Facebook.
They agreed that the overall experience was great, but could have done without the long lines.
“It’s crowded,” said Yim, 25. “I’ve never seen so many people in such a concentrated area.”
Chang, 26, said he enjoyed the food but that the prices were a little too high, which he expected.
Angelica Mendoza came down to the seafood festival from Jersey City with family and friends. Mendoza also caught word of the event on Facebook and decided to give it a try.
“We usually go to Bradley Beach, so we wanted to check this one out,” she said, as she took a sip of her lemonade.
Brabazon, the coordinator, said events like this wouldn’t be possible without Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty’s support. She said he fosters an environment that promotes “quality” tourism events in the town.
“It’s summer in Belmar,” Brabazon said. “This is really, for us, the official kickoff of the summer. … It’s a feel good event when the weather cooperates. And I think everything lined up (this year). It’s just been a great event.”
Article by NJ.COM
Alex Napoliello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @alexnapoNJ. Find NJ.com on Facebook.