BONITA SPRINGS — Taste of Bonita was bigger than ever—bouncing back from lower attendance in the recession years and going all out for the 20th anniversary of the event.
Ticket sales were higher than recent previous years. The crowds were bigger, came earlier and stayed longer, said Rob Grady, chairman of the event, which was hosted by the Rotary Club of Bonita Springs Noon and Physicians Regional Healthcare Systems.
“It’s really jammed up at the food tents,” said Mike McDonald, of Bonita Springs, as he sat in a lawn chair conveniently located between the food offerings from 25 locally-owned restaurants and the live music provided by Rolling Stones and Beatles tribute bands on Sunday.
McDonald came to Taste of Bonita both days, saying the music was some of the best he’d heard throughout the years of attending the event.
“It’s been great. We really enjoyed the Jimmy Buffet music last night (Saturday). It’s just really happy music,” said McDonald.
His friends, Bob and Joan Reiske, married 58 years, agreed that the Caribbean Chillers were a blast. The music was going to end at 9 p.m., but organizers decided to keep the music going another hour as attendance remained high, said Grady.
The event usually draws about 10,000 people, but this year about 13,000 people visited, according to Grady’s early estimates.
Organizers weren’t the only ones to notice the larger crowds.
“It seems like this year there are more people and more food options,” said Harry Casimir, an Estero resident.
He, along with his wife Esther and their three children—Ethan, 4, Levi, 1 and 3-month old Audrey—spent much of their time enjoying the children’s activity area, with Ethan taking many rounds of laser tag.
“The kids are having fun. That’s what is important to me,” Casimir said.
Though there were many returners, including the Casimir’s, there was much new this year, including a home cooking style mini Taste of Bonita on Saturday with a chili, gumbo soup and pulled pork cook-off.
Winners of the cook-off were the Masonic Lodge of Naples for their pulled pork, incoming Rotary Club of Bonita Springs Noon President Betty Jean Christiansen for her gumbo soup and the Twisted Sisters for their chili.
“The Twisted Sisters are fun. They are a group of women who just get together for these cook-offs. They come in wild garb, big pink wigs, miniskirts and pink leggings. They’re a great time,” said Grady.
They also served up a great chili, earning them a trophy.
The gumbo cook-off had its entertainment value as well. The winner, Christiansen, had never made a gumbo soup in life prior to being challenged to a cook-off by the expected shoe-in, Mary Shallies, who has New Orleans roots and shipped in her ingredients.
The win left many people, including David Ziccarelli, a member of the Taste of Bonita committee, shaking their heads.
Ziccarelli agreed with the voting though, loving Christiansen’s gumbo most, getting extra to take home, and then returning for the main event Sunday.
“Ticket sales are pretty brisk. It’s been busier this year right from the first hour. It’s really recovered from the years of the economy being down,” Ziccarelli said.
That means more money going to several charitable causes supported by the Rotary Club Noon, including the Bonita Springs Assistance Office, Junior Achievement and many others.
Food tastings ran the gamut, including mini cupcakes from Cupcakes in Paradise, prime rib from Fitzgerald’s, a plethora of fresh baked cookie options from Old 41 Restaurant, including pumpkin spice, S’mores and more.
A huge hit was a Thanksgiving themed sandwich, The Bobbie, from Capriotti’s.
The sandwich included roasted turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing.
“It’s Thanksgiving on a bun,” said Michelle Nemet, who owns Capriotti’s along with husband Augustine Nemet.
The duo donated half of their sales to the Rotary Club, adding another taste of authenticity to Thanksgiving and to the Taste of Bonita.
Visitors loved the opportunity to meet the owners of the restaurants and sample new menu items all in a one-stop shop.
“Look at that plantain wrap. It’s beautiful,” exclaimed Elaine Roehl, a part-time resident of Cape Coral and Bloomington, Indiana, as she viewed the samplings offered by the Hot Caboose.
Roehl and friend Cheryl Rapp of Fort Myers visited Taste of Bonita for the first time to assist in their goal of finding a new place to go together every week. They found their next stop.
“We’ll be going to the Old 41 Restaurant. We picked up their menu and learned they have scrapple for breakfast,” said Roehl.
Rapp was enthusiastic about their planned outing.
“It’s kind of like Goetta, which is very popular in Cincinnati, where I’m from. It’s a German dish,” Rapp said.
Old 41 Restaurant owner Tony Backos decided to participate in Taste of Bonita for the first time and was glad he did, he said.
“Scrapple was one of Ben Franklin’s favorite foods from what I’ve been told. It’s popular for breakfast. It’s made of what’s left over from the pork after processing, buckwheat flour and various spices. Then, it’s sliced and grilled,” Backos said.
Taste of Bonita was a great opportunity for restaurants to kick off the season.
“We reopen for winter the day after this event (Monday). It’s a great opportunity to let people know we’re open,” said Mike Clevenger, owner of Farmer Mike’s U-Pick, as he stood by his stand of vibrant fresh salads.