PALMETTO -- At least 18 Manatee County restaurants are looking forward to larger crowds and better weather at the Taste of Manatee this weekend because it was moved up a month.
Matt Elliott, division manager for Fratello's and Riverhouse Reef & Grill restaurants, said they received an email about two months ago about the event's date change. He was already getting ready for the event.
"I've been participating for so many years through Riverhouse, so I just had it on my calendar and we always sign up for it right away," Elliott said. "It's always a good time."
Though Riverhouse usually breaks even at Taste of Manatee, Elliott said it's a worthy investment for the exposure.
Restaurants will line the grounds of Sutton Park on Saturday and Sunday to offer attendees a sample of what they offer. Each participating restaurant can offer no more than four different samples and will be competing for best appetizer, best entree, best dessert and best booth awards.
"Once you get a line in front of you, you get a little energy going," Elliott said. "I try to make it more of a party atmosphere around my booth where you have to go over and check it out and see what's going on." Fratello's and Riverhouse will share
a side-by-side booth at the Taste of Manatee.
Taste of Manatee organizers indicated they are expecting more than 15,000 people this year.
Dana Johnson, owner of Sugar Cubed bakery in Bradenton's Village of the Arts, said he was happy to see the date had changed from November to October.
"Last year was cold and windy and I think it rained one day," Johnson said. "It was kind of miserable during later hours."
Sugar Cubed often has more events to cater by November, Johnson said, so the October dates for Taste of Manatee helped him breathe a little easier. Johnson said festival organizers reached out to him to participate and that he is good friends with Tony Gallo, member of sponsoring organization the West Bradenton Rotary Club and chairman of the event for the past 24 years, and others on the Taste of Manatee board of directors.
Johnson also likes what it does for the Manatee County community.
"We're trying to get rid of that tourist mindset," Johnson said. "We don't have to have festivals just in January and February. We can spread things out, and it's great for business all year round."
Not everyone was aware of the date change. YachtSea Grille, a Bradenton riverside restaurant, participated in Taste of Manatee last year.
"I personally didn't know that it had been moved to this weekend," said YachtSea Grille head chef Rov Avila. "I keep it in mind that the Taste of Manatee is usually a November thing."
Avila said he does not remember being approached to participate in this year's festival.
"At the same time, I don't watch TV or anything like that," Avila said. "I'm usually always here at the restaurant working."
Even if he had known the date of the event, YachtSea Grille may not have participated.
"Last year, the turnout wasn't that great," Avila said.
Another Bradenton riverfront restaurant, Pier 22, said a packed schedule contributed to its decision not to participate this year.
"We participate in so many events and unfortunately we can't do them all," said Natalie Purcell, spokeswoman for Pier 22.
Blu Mangrove in Palmetto, on the other hand, is making its first appearance at the Taste of Manatee since coming under new ownership in December.
"It's obviously my first time doing it; I understand it has a tremendous audience," said Blu Mangrove owner Faz Farrotti. "We're coming there to introduce ourselves to our audience." He said Blu Mangrove will not reduce portions at the Taste of Manatee like some other restaurants do. Customers of the Blu Mangrove booth will receive full-size plates, served as if they ordered them at the restaurant. They will offer slider burgers, fish tacos and California rolls.
Other participating restaurants include J&J's Barbeque, Riverside Barbeque, Mexicali, Big Cow Creamery and Jersey Mike's Subs.
Restaurants pay a $350 fee for a spot at the festival. The fee includes a tent, water, licenses, electricity, health inspections, ground rental, advertising, promotions and security. If restaurants have their own tent, the fee is reduced to $250.
Restaurants will trade their Taste of Manatee tickets for cash on the Monday after the festival ends. Each restaurant's profits will be divided with 40 percent donated to the West Bradenton Rotary Club.
This year's festival will also feature a classic car show.
Gallo said 18 restaurants seems to give guests enough variety while not overwhelming them.
"Some festivals like in Sarasota -- and Fort Myers used to have one -- they would have 30 to 35 restaurants and it just didn't work out," Gallo said. "The restaurants get good exposure" when there's 18 to 20, instead of a larger number.
Janelle O'Dea, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095 or follow her on Twitter @jayohday.