By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]lextimes.com
Just ten minutes after Taste of Del Ray began at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, volunteers were already informing those who hadn’t bought their tickets that the event was sold out.
It wasn’t what Gayle Reuter and Pat Miller, who have both been involved with Taste of Del Ray since its inception, were expecting, but by Sunday morning, 700 tickets were already gone and the remaining 300 sold quickly in the hours leading up to the event. Though surprised by the quick sellout of the event, sponsored by the Del Ray Business Association, Reuter and Miller aren’t shocked by how successful Taste of Del Ray has become.
The event started as an outgrowth of Del Ray’s monthly First Thursdays.
“The community really gets involved. There are always new people,” Miller said. “I don’t know how many people have told me that they went to an
event, like First Thursday, and then decided to move in down the street.”
This year, 18 restaurants, confectionaries and coffee shops participated, including Mount Vernon Avenue mainstays like St. Elmo’s, Stomping Ground, Taqueria Poblano, Evening Star and Pork Barrel BBQ, as well as newcomers like Northside 10, Dolce & Bean and Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap.
Each were asked to provide 1,000 samples for guests, though some, like first-year participant Northside 10, prepared for larger crowds. Owner Greg Dushaw brought 1,200 mini reuben sandwiches and more than enough mac and cheese to feed growing lines of attendees. Dushaw said participating in the event was a no brainer, especially as a restaurant that made its debut just a little over four months ago.
“It’s a neighborhood event and we’re in the neighborhood. It’s a tight community,” he said. “It’s about awareness, but it’s also about being a part of everything Del Ray.”
Even for more established businesses, like Swing’s Coffee, the event can be a boon. Swing’s, which has been open in Del Ray for more than four years, was serving up bourbon barrel-aged coffee to guests.
“Some people don’t know us in the community because Alexandria tends to be a transient community,” Neil Balkcom, director of coffee operations at Swing’s, said. “Del Ray gets new residents each year.”
Swing’s also has two stores in D.C. and one more location in D.C. closed for renovations.
Balkcom said Taste of Del Ray gives them the opportunity to experiment.
“It helps us to push the envelope. Every year, we create something new and get the word out about it,” Balkcom said. Taqueria Poblano, a fan favorite that has participated in Taste of Del Ray eight of the nine years, said seeing the long lines of people waiting to sample their fare is still meaningful to them.
“It’s kind of just confirmation that people love it,” Jeff Wallingford, co-owner, said. “Our restaurant is very small, so it’s often packed. But when you see a line at an event like this, you know you’re doing something right.”
It’s this kind of restaurant community that Reuter and Miller, who have both lived in Del Ray since the mid-’80s, were looking to foster, an effort that started with block parties in 1991 and grew into Art on the Avenue in 1994. The Del
Ray Farmers Market and First Thursday followed shortly after.
“We wanted to figure out a way to get people to The Avenue,” Reuter said. “We came up with a theme and we decided to showcase the restaurants. It’s grown so big since then.”
Mount Vernon Avenue started the 1990s with only a handful of businesses, but during that
decade mainstays like St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, which opened in 1996, began changing the feel of Del Ray. Mom-and-pop restaurants like Taqueria, established in 1999,
slowly helped turn the neighborhood into a lively destination spot.
Events, Reuter and Miller say, were a major contributor to that growth.
“It’s critical,” Miller said. “It’s what makes a community what it is.”
The duo said the true mark of success was hearing how many attendees were coming from out of town. Reuter said they had attendees coming from as far away as Richmond.
As it approaches its tenth year in 2018, Miller and Reuter said their hope is to get all Del Ray restaurants involved.
Taste of Del Ray also plans to continue giving back to partnering nonprofits, like the Alexandria Boys and Girls Club, which sold water and soda at the event and raised $1,000 in doing so.
“Right now we have about 90 percent of restaurants involved. It would be even more fun to get 100 percent involvement,” Miller said. “That would be the goal. You’d like them all to participate.”