Well-oiled gears turn all year round to artfully crank out the many organized food and booze events that hit our Google calendars and cash flow. Everything from food trucks circling at a Thompson’s Point funfest, to the Ice Bar at the Portland Harbor Hotel, to Harvest on the Harbor, to the Big Papi of them all, Portland Restaurant Week.
And those are just the heavy hitters.
We are also compelled to choose between the smaller, perhaps more personally meaningful gatherings. A gala campaigning for cancer research, a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, or a religiously focused evening might be the thing that scores our expendable income. This is not to say dressing like the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man and holding a martini with floating shards of ice isn’t a religious experience.
Then there’s the educational networking breakfasts, lunches and dinners, as well as the oxymoronic-sounding professionally planned happy hours for different demographics.
Those soirees, not at all unique to Portland, from the grandest to grassroots, from the most established to the trendiest, from $500-per-plate to pay what you can, bring us something economically, socially, and of course, civically useful. Best of all, unless it’s a work-related must-do, we have choices.
Unable to appreciate the simplicity of Lite Beer from Miller, I have a dear friend who follows the 207 craft beer movement with a feverish passion. Last summer, participating in an event commandeered by a beer association, she and a like-minded group Mecca’d to different local breweries Thursday evenings for 12 weeks. Knowing that Thursday is one of her play nights, I can’t help but feel sorry for the regular haunt they all ditched for the roving suds.
Another friend, trying to break out of the restaurant business, joined one of the aforementioned happy-hour crowds to network with other young entrepreneurs. She has yet to miss a gathering, but shed light, from the inside out, on what happens when we have so many choices.
“It isn’t just the server shift I’m giving up to meet with these people,” she said. “It’s been helpful with my (green cleaning products) business, but with so much going on in town all the time, regulars just aren’t coming in as much on my other nights. People think it’s new restaurants, but really they’re all going to this or that festival or fundraiser thing. Doesn’t it seem like there’s so many more of them than there used to be?”
Out of respect for dead horses everywhere, I’m not going to rehash the glutting of the Portland restaurant pie that’s been discussed over the years. But the ever-growing event scene is worth consideration in remeasuring the ingredients.
Pick up any local paper (preferably the one you’re reading) and you’ll see an advertisement for one or more upcoming events. Before crediting it to the season and pointing to all the beloved church and craft fairs, look again. Sure, some of the event organizers partner with restaurants as the venue, but primarily it’s the event itself that hooks people.
Admittedly, some of the promotional ads are paid for at a nonprofit rate, and some are media sponsorship trades with name-brand logo support. The festivals and events are put on by pros who listen to the feedback and make them more appealing and attendee-friendly. They become traditions, and as long as we continue to buy tickets, new ones will be offered, bringing us more choices requiring trade-offs.
“I don’t know,” my server friend said. “Maybe those fancy events give people a sense of being together and doing good. Or maybe it’s a see-and-be-seen thing. Whatever it is, I wish they’d either come back to the restaurant or buy some green dish soap.”
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.