The 5th Annual Taste of Petaluma is slated for Saturday, September 25th but DO NOT wait to buy your tickets since there will only be a limited number issued this year.  Get the special “locals” price before tickets increase for the out of towners!!!  (The last day of the “early bird” special is August 2nd.)

When I returned to Petaluma after 15 years of living in other parts of the Bay Area, the first thing I wanted to do was eat.  This should come as no surprise to my regular readers, but I like to eat.  I like to cook, I like to grocery shop, and I especially like to eat out.  I like to eat out because I don’t have to clean a whole bunch of dishes but also because I like to taste what recipes other people have come up with.  Most importantly though, I like to eat out because I love the community I live in and feel like a bigger part of it when I am out and about the town.

When I last lived in Petaluma I was young and poor so I didn’t get to eat out often and when I did it was usually Mexican or Chinese – two things that are usually best left to the professionals even if you only take into consideration the cost of ingredients.  Sure, you can make some pretty killer ‘rittos at home, but they rarely compare to your favorite Mexican place and they always end up costing more once you consider the time, effort, and cost of ingredients (and gas to drive to the store, etc.)  Newly returned to Petaluma, and this time with a well paying job I was dying to try the best that Petaluma had to offer; both the old classics and the new kids on the block.  The problem was that to taste every restaurant on my list was going to take a long time and cost a lot of money.  Well, low and behold, while walking around downtown I spotted a poster for Cinnabar Theater’s Taste of Petaluma (TOP).  “A culinary walking tour of downtown Petaluma.”  What could be better?

I got the family together and we walked downtown that Saturday and purchased our tickets.  The night before, I had printed out a map and menu from the TOP website because I wanted to be ready.  I had already allocated my ten tasting tickets to ten restaurants that were on my list of places to try ever since moving back into town.  If you have attended the TOP you know how great it is, but I was surprised at how many businesses participated and how generous they were with their portions.  I did all my tasting and then used some of my family member’s extra tickets since they were full after half a dozen tastes.  Out of the original ten restaurants I tried, I still eat at eight of them, frequenting three of them on a regular basis.  Who knows how long it would have taken me on my own, but thankfully TOP made my work easy.

Another surprising element of TOP was that it was more than just a food tasting event.  With live entertainment all over downtown, plus restaurants from the east side being hosted at galleries and other shops, this was truly a community event.  I learned later that it is a fundraiser for Cinnabar Theater.  It had a small town feel and did a great job at not only showcasing the best of the best in Petaluma but also showing that all the participating businesses were glad to be part of such a close knit community.

I was so impressed with the event and the community spirit all the participants showed, that I contacted the organizer and ask if I could help out the following year.  Fast forward a couple of years and I am not just a volunteer but was asked to join Cinnabar Theater’s board of directors.  

The 5th Annual Taste of Petaluma is quickly approaching and this year is going to be a record setter.  With Gene Burns (of KGO) doing a live broadcast plus more restaurants, wineries, and shops participating than ever before, this is an event not to be missed.  I always thought the prices were very low at $35 compared to all the other Sonoma County “taste” events, which normally run between $60-$150 per person and sure enough, prices are set to go up this year.  The good news is that we have special pricing so that we don’t price our locals out…but you have to act fast.  Ticket prices are $40 but only until August 2nd.   And for the first time ever, due to our growing numbers (Petaluma is getting known throughout the Bay Area as a major weekend destination) we will only be selling a limited number of tickets so don’t get left out in the cold (with an empty belly.)  Tickets can be purchased directly through the www.tasteofpetaluma.com

If you have always wanted to taste Sugo, Brixx Pizza, Risibisi, Della Fattoria, Everest Indian, Tres Hombres…just to name a few, this is your chance.  Why spend the money on an entire dinner for you and your family when you don’t even know if you will like the food.  Come to TOP and you get to find out for a fraction of the cost, plus you get to see all the new shops around town, like Vine & Barrel at their new location.  Some of the new comers this year are Roy’s Chicago Dogs, Wild Goat Bistro, and the soon to be opened Bovine Bakery on Kentucky Street.  And there are old standby’s, like McNear’s and Maguire’s, both of which have been around for a while but whose food has improved considerable in the past year or so (I can personally attest to both of them being much better than I remember when I first ate at them.)

But…I also ask for your help.  If you know a restaurant or shop owner or are a regular ask the manager or owner if they are going to participate in Taste of Petaluma this year.  I believe strongly in this event and how it is one of the many events that help to tie Petaluma together as a community.  I would love to see every single store front open for business and welcoming in TOP patrons but that is just the local in me.  For the businesses this is a great opportunity for them to get a lot of foot traffic on a special day when Petaluma is being highlighted.  Restaurants send out coupons all the time but believe me, if I don’t throw them away, I usually have 10-15 to choose from so their chances of getting me into their shop if I haven’t already tasted their food is slim.  With TOP, they are putting their food right into my mouth – if I like it I will be back and as stated early, it has worked on my many a time.  Plus, the beauty of this event is that it isn’t held in a pavilion somewhere.  When someone tastes the food they are going to know where it comes from because they are standing in the restaurant getting to read the full menu, experience the ambiance, and meet the staff and owners.  There is no advertising that is better.  Ask Marco at Risibisi; he wouldn’t miss this event for anything because it helps drive business in that has always wanted to taste them but hadn’t gotten around to it yet.  Or ask Eric at TAPS.  He opened prior to his Grand Opening last year so that he could participate.  He knew that he was opening just prior to the slow season and wanted to introduce his shop to most people possible before business slowed down for the winter.

I have heard some pretty lame excuses for places not wanting to participate.  I think they are lame, not as a Cinnabar board member, but as someone who thinks Petaluma is a special place, particularly because of events like this.

Here are some of my favorites:

1) “Giving away free food is how you go out of business.”  This was what a new owner of one of the pizza places claimed.  Either he doesn’t plan on advertising at all or else he doesn’t understand the value of having people actually taste his food (a taste “coupon” as it were).  With places like Brixx turning out excellent pizza, I fear this other shop won’t last long.

2)  “I am already busy on Saturdays so I don’t want to clog up my place.”  For restaurants this is a non-issue since TOP doesn’t cut into the dinner rush at all, ending at 4pm.  For non-restaurants, it isn’t about making money just this September 25th; it is about getting customers into their shop that might not have come otherwise, and will hopefully return.  And when they return, they may help add to business on other days of the week.  If a shop or restaurant is proud of what they do and how they are set up they should want to show that off.  Customers appreciate that and will come back.

3)  “People will be full from TOP so they won’t come in for dinner afterwards.”  Again, this isn’t about a single shot – this is about getting your food in people’s mouths so that they come back with the whole family and drop a bunch of dough on your food.  Many of the TOP guests actually stay out for dinner and usually go to which ever “taste” they liked best.  Others may head home with their tummies full, but they are going to have the TOP map and menu and are sure to revisit some of their favorites from the day.  And if a restaurant doesn’t participate that does not guarantee them any extra business for un-full TOP clients so they may as well get in on the great advertising. 

4)  “I participate in other events and get money for the food I give out.”  This isn’t a donation so don’t think about it that way.  This is advertising, and quite affordable advertising at that.  There is no other way to get your food into 300-400 potential customers’ mouths.  All the coupons in the world or 2-for-1’s can’t bring this type of exposure.  Plus, there are opportunities to get extra press when a restaurant is picked by one of the many food writers who are invited to the pre-event “mini-tastes” put on by the organizers.  There is a major radio interview done a week prior to the event and all participants are invited to submit their food to be tasted on air.  Some of the more successful restaurants in town are always putting something together to get their name on the air…at no cost.  And of course, if a restaurant wants to buy advertising with Gene Burns and KGO, they can, but it is not necessary if their advertising budget is tight.

5)  “You should be paying me to participate.”  This one left me speechless.  Although not a donation, this event still goes to help Cinnabar Theater as well as showing off Petaluma’s best.   To suggest such a thing is just rude.  If that is how that owner does business I don’t expect them to be around for long.  Living downtown, I have seen a lot of places come and go and most of them are not a surprise.  There are only a few places that have good enough food and service to be able to refrain from these types of events…but I don’t eat at them.  In this economy I want to know that my money is doing double work, not just paying for my meal but also going back into the community as well as helping to support a business that is community oriented.    Businesses are going to learn a harsh lesson when this new economy swings into full effect.  Good food isn’t going to be enough.  Sugo is a perfect example of a restaurant that “gets it.”  They have great food, wine, location, and service – same as a couple of other well established eateries downtown.  But they also want to be part of the community.  I have yet to see a community event that they are not part of and that is one of the many reason I patronize them on a regular business. 

So there you have it.  The Taste of Petaluma is upon us again.  Break out yur eatin’ britches because it promises to be a good one.  Get your tickets early in order to avoid the $50 and $60 price levels and please help support local businesses that do their part by also helping other locals, whether they are charities or other businesses.  I can’t stress this enough; we are a unique community and that isn’t by accident.  It is because those of us that spend our money don’t do it without thought and the places that we spend it at do their part to give back whenever they can.

(editing and pictures to follow shortly)