Every year for a quarter of a century, the Taste of Manatee grew incrementally, gradually developing into one of the most popular festivals in the area.
Then last year, it moved from its long-time home near the Twin Dolphin Marina and became the first major event on Bradenton's new Riverwalk.
"This is the 27th year for the festival, but last year was out first year on the Riverwalk," said Mark Sticht, one of the event's chairmen. "And it drew twice as many people as it ever had before."
With a free event it's always hard to figure exactly how many people showed up.
"We just say thousands," Sticht said. "Thousands and thousands."
This year's Taste of Manatee is set for Saturday and Sunday, again on the Riverwalk.
There's every reason to expect a similar turnout this year, because the same formula that has proven so successful since the 1980s hasn't changed.
"Taste of Manatee is one of the biggest festivals in Manatee County every year," Sticht said. "Restaurants from around Manatee give people a taste of their food. And by taste, I mean a small portion, so you can sample food from several different restaurants."
There's also beer a and wine and two full days of music and other entertainment.
"And a lot of people really enjoy watching football on the wide-screen TV in the tiki bar tent," Sticht said. "College football on Saturday and pro football on Sunday."
The emphasis of the festival is on Manatee County, Sticht said. Every restaurant that will offer samples of its food is in Manatee County (though some are chains that may be headquartered elsewhere) and all the bands who are playing are from within the county.
For the Rotary Club of West Bradenton, which has organized the festival for the past few years, Taste of Manatee has a more important purpose than just food, music and football.
"It's a fundraiser for Manatee County charities and nonprofits," Sticht said. "The restaurants all donate 40 percent of what they take in to the charities."
Festival-goers buy tickets for $1 each, and use them to buy food from the restaurants. Credit and debit cards are not accepted. The samples may cost two to four tickets. At day's end, the restaurants turn in their tickets and are reimbursed for 60 percent of their total sales.
"The restaurants aren't in this to make a profit," Sticht said. "They want to get the word out about the food they serve, and besides that, they really care about supporting their community."
The lineup of restaurants involved changes somewhat from year to year. This year, Sticht said, culinary programs from Manatee and Southeast high schools will both be participating for the first time.
Local artists and crafters will also offer their work.
Among the other restaurants that will have booths at the festival are Sweets, Big Cow Creamery, Jars, Bonefish Grill, L&J Barbecue, the Fresh Market, Blue Marlin, Cedar Reef Fish Camp, MJ's, YachtSea Grille, Riverhouse Reef & Grill, Edelweiss, the Feast, Mexicali, Renaissance Catering, Gillian's, Jersey Mike's, Taste of Hawaii, Meaney's Mini Donuts, St. Mark Orthodox Church and Manatee Riverside Rotary Club.
Saturday's main stage entertainment lineup includes Trevor Bystrom (11 a.m.), Soul R Coaster (noon), Kim Betts & Gamble Creek (2 p.m.), Koko Ray (3:30 p.m.), Sam Woolf/Friction (5:30 p.m.) and Shaman (7 p.m.)
On Sunday, it's Dillon & Nick Jazz Duo 11 a.m., Matt Waldon (noon), the Northwest (1 p.m.), Mark Weight band (2 p.m.), Jake Castro Band (3:30 p.m.) and Big Daddy (5 p.m.).
There's also two full days of entertainment, mostly aimed at for younger audiences at the Mosaic Amphitheatre.
Details: Nov. 2-3, Bradenton Riverwalk at Rossi Park. Festival times: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Admission: Free. Information: www.tasteofmanatee.com
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.