Everglades Seafood Festival celebrates 40 years of good friends and great food

Isles of Capri seasonal residents Peter and Barbara Phippen find a spot to enjoy their fish and chips during the Everglades Seafood Festival on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008. The Phippens have been attending the festival for over 10 years. 'This is just the highlight of the season, ' Barbara said.

Photo by GREG KAHN, Daily News // Buy this photo

Isles of Capri seasonal residents Peter and Barbara Phippen find a spot to enjoy their fish and chips during the Everglades Seafood Festival on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008. The Phippens have been attending the festival for over 10 years. "This is just the highlight of the season, " Barbara said.

When Nate Augustus, frontman for the local band GatorNate and the Gladezmen, takes the stage Saturday for the 40th annual Everglades Seafood Festival, he'll look out at the crowd and see many familiar faces.

"Out of the 1,000 people in the crowd, I'll know 500 of them by name," he says adding, "Many of them are friends I haven't seen since last year's festival, but we always see each at the Everglades Seafood Festival."

And that's the thing about this annual event. While Southwest Florida has more festivals than you can shake a corn dog stick at, the Everglades Seafood Festival is one of the few that is still all about good food, cold beer and hanging out with old friends. In essence, the Everglades Seafood Festival is like your favorite neighborhood block party on steroids.

Augustus, who will play both Friday and Saturday nights, says that he loves the three-day seafood extravaganza because for him it's been a lifelong tradition.

"I started drinking from Everglades Seafood Festival cups since I graduated from sippy cups," he says, referencing the ubiquitous plastic souvenir cups always present at the event. "This year I'm hoping they're neon green," he adds.

After 39 years of festivals, the organizers have done just about every color of cup. But while the cup colors change every year, the mission of the event is always the same: to help raise money for the community.

If you go

Everglades Seafood Festival

What: The 40th annual event featuring local crafts and artisans, seafood, rides, games and country music

When: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10

Where: Center of Everglades City. Take U.S. 41 East to SR-29. Turn onto SR-29 and drive about

4 miles to the center of town.

Details: For a complete concert lineup, visit www.evergladesseafoodfestival.com.

Something else: Coolers and pets are not allowed. Plan for traffic delays on U.S. 41 East to and from the festival.

"The original Everglades Seafood Festival happened because the city bought this land and wanted to build a park," says Marya Repko, President of the Everglades City Historical Society, adding, "We had a fish fry to raise money for the playground equipment." Since that original fish fry, the event has grown exponentially.

"I remember a few years ago I wanted to go down to the festival but, even from my house, I could tell there was no way I could drive my car down there. There was so much traffic — so I just walked." Repko said.

She said she's happy to deal with the traffic because she knows all those cars mean dollars for the community.

"Things have been slow here this year, we're still hoping it will pick up for February, but the Seafood Festival is always good for our community. The profits — after we pay our expenses — always go directly back to the community."

Throughout the weekend, visitors can expect live local music along with a few Nashville acts such as Jason Thomas and Jerrod Niemann, and even a performance by "X-Factor" finalist Lakoda Rayne. Local artisans will sell crafts, and there will be no shortage of seafood.

One thing organizers have tried to do this year is to bring more of an "old hometown feel" to the event. However, Repko said that has been surprisingly difficult because of the festival's size. While they'd love to have more local food vendors, the small mom-and-pop outfits often can't cope with the volume of people the event typically brings.

"There's not as many local vendors as we'd like, but really they just can't deal with the numbers. They're not geared up to deal with thousands and thousands of people," said Repko. "The Sons of the Confederacy is a local group and they'll be selling turkey legs and corn on the cob and last year a restaurant in Chokoloskee came up and did some local specialties, so we do have a few."

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