SARATOGA SPRINGS — The 21st annual running of the Chowderfest is Saturday, and if the cold snap eases, as is forecast, 40,000 folks are expected to consume 130,000 cups of chowder on the streets of the city.
The annual event is a winter counterpart to the big races each summer at Saratoga Race Course. It draws throngs downtown from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to strike back at midwinter cabin fever, voting for the best chef rather than betting on the fastest horse.
Hundreds of people in the restaurant and tourism industry are busy getting ready, as are the city employees who will make the event safe and possible. But likely few are as enthusiastic about it as Josh Cupp, general manager of Thirsty Owl Saratoga, the South Broadway wine garden and bistro that won top prize the last two years in popular voting.
“I’ve got a great chef, Laura Fowler, she loves it,” Copp said. “More than everything, it’s just great to see people out having fun in the winter.”
On an average winter day, Thirsty Owl would tally about $4,000 in net sales. On Chowderfest day, customer count jumps 500 percent, Net sales are up only 300 percent because many of those people are stopping in for just a drink or only a light meal after eating chowder all afternoon. Still, it’s an amazing bump during the quiet season.
“It’s the biggest no-brainer in the history of advertising and promotion,” Copp said.
Thirsty Owl’s popularity among Chowderfest voters is more remarkable considering it’s a bit south of the main concentration of chowder stands. But there really isn’t a secret, Copp said: It’s just good seafood chowder.
The shrimp wrapped in bacon and rolled in brown sugar probably sways some voters. It certainly puts Copp in the red, as each cup of chowder sells for just $1.
“My cost is well over a dollar and I don’t care. I love this town and I love this event.”
Here are some other observations as chowder time draws near:
Discover Saratoga works to organize and promote the event. It cost about $50,000 to stage in 2018, recouped in part from vendors’ $250 entry fee. Banners and advertising are the biggest expenses, followed by reimbursements of police and public works employees’ extra costs.
This year, there are a record 95 vendors, spokeswoman Talia Cass said Wednesday.
All or part of Ellsworth Jones Place and Caroline, Henry, Phila and Putnam streets will be closed for the event.
“We do work pretty closely with the city to get ready,” Cass said.
Estimated economic impact on local merchants was $2 million in 2018, when 130,000 cups of chowder were sold.
Winter is the loneliest time for an ice cream shop, said Patrick Pipino, owner of the Ben & Jerry’s on Putnam Street. His sales total only about $40 a day in the cold months, and his franchise agreement mandates that he not close for winter.
All that is forgotten during those five hours on that one Saturday, when his shop will sell 2,000 to 3,000 servings of chowder.
“The economic impact of Chowderest cannot be stated more clearly,” Pipino siad. “It’s a huge boon to Saratoga.”
That chowder is a dessert chowder, not the traditional soup.
“We take our Phish Food ice cream, we get it a little softer than usual, add a dab of chocolate syrup and top it with M&M croutons,” Pipino said.
HELP FROM FRIENDS
This is the second Chowderfest for August Rosa, who opened his small craft beer shop Pint Sized on Broadway in 2017. The crew made a small batch in 2018 in their tiny food prep area, but it was consumed in 20 minutes.
“We were very young at that point,” he recalled.
This year, Pint Sized is partnering with Cock ‘N Bull in Galway to make the chowder and Wolf Hollow Brewing in Glenville to make biscuits. The supply should last a lot longer than last year.
Even after he ran out of chowder in 2018, Rosa found that the event introduced a lot of people to his shop.
“It was one of our top three days,” he recalls.
February as a whole was strong for Pint Sized, he said, with two other big events: The Dance Flurry and Beer Week.
“I’ve seen a couple, some chillier than others,” Stacy De Garay, manager of The Savory Pantry, said of past Chowderfests. “When we get a really beautiful winter day when the sun is shining, it’s great.”
Savory Pantry at one time prepared its own chowder, but with a small staff, it decided to partner up with others to sell their chowder. Previously it was Moby Rick’s Seafood, this year it’s Mary Song from Healthy Gourmet Kitchen.
Unlike a busy Christmas shopping season, when people come downtown because they feel like they need to buy a gift, people come to Chowderfest because they want to, De Garay said. It’s optional, and therefore more relaxed.
“It’s a family atmosphere, it’s festive,” she said. “People come because they want to. You can come, try a couple of chowders and go home, or you can make a day of it.”
SNOW MUST GO
Public Works Commissioner Anthony Scirocco said crews were out clearing the streets and sidewalks of accumulated snow in predawn hours Thursday and will be out again Friday.
“This is the second time we’ve done it,” he said. “We did it initially after the big storm because we want to get Broadway clear.”
Tuesday evening’s snow totaled about 8 inches but it was light and easily removed. If any more snow falls, it too will be hauled out and dumped by the city ice rink.
On the big day, Public Works crews will be doing a different kind of cleaning.
“We put additional garbage cans out,” Scirocco said. “We want to make sure it doesn’t mess up Broadway. Then we’ve got the cleanup after.”
The Wine Bar is another establishment that stopped participating in Chowderfest — its wintertime staff is just too small to handle the extra demand.
“You need three or four people to serve the chowder and more inside,” co-owner Lois Evans explained.
But The Wine Bar nonetheless benefits from the festival, and appreciates it.
“I think it’s a great promotion for the town,” she said. “We open a few hours early.”
Saratoga Springs police will be helping to keep all the chowder fans safe.
The city’s population will more than double Saturday, which can be a major test of infrastructure and organization, but city police have extensive experience with exactly the same situation several times each summer for big races or concerts in town. So it’s a familiar task and a reachable goal, said spokesman Lt. Robert Jilson.
The Chowderfest itself retains a family flavor, he said. Where problems can crop up is afterward, when many of the visitors have gone home and some of those that remain switch from chowder to alcohol.
“There is a component that makes it kind of excessive,” he said. “For the most part, as far as arrests and violence, we haven’t seen it.”