By Jerry duPhily
In the fall of 2003, I sat down with then Newark Mayor Vance Funk to discuss the possibility of creating a summer food and beer festival for his town. That meeting was the birth of what has become a Newark tradition — the Downtown Newark Food & Brew Festival.
From the beginning, the goal of the event was to provide a boost to Newark restaurants during a slow time for business. After all, even today Newark is a vastly different town when the students are gone for summer break. In 2004, the diminished business activity was even more dramatic.
But beyond the boost to business, I felt the festival could boost Newark’s profile. By inviting non-residents to an event that showcased Main Street and its assortment of restaurants — with no admission fee — many would discover Newark’s appeal beyond its well-established college town reputation. When I asked Mayor Funk for the meeting, I knew that angle would appeal to him. Newark has no bigger cheerleader.
In fairness, the beer festival concept was not mine. It was suggested to us by UD student Todd Motto, an intern for Out & About at the time. (Todd wound up in our sales department for a couple of years after graduation before leaving the area to pursue a career in teaching. He’s currently an associate professor at Long Island University.) Todd knew of O&A’s success with collaborative events in Wilmington. He wanted us to try to do the same in Newark.
It was a risky idea. First, the craft beer movement may have been flourishing elsewhere, but in Delaware it was in its infancy. Furthermore, a beer-focused event ran a bit counter to a university working to curb its reputation as a party school (That battle continues. As recently as 2019, the Princeton Review ranked the University of Delaware as the nation’s No. 1 party school).
And, of course, there was the obvious challenge: With all the students gone, would enough people show up to make our efforts worthwhile? An arts and crafts festival would have been a safer bet.
However, the good mayor bought my argument that a food and brew festival need not be a keg party. And the restaurants, well, they did need the hit.
So, in July of 2004 the Downtown Newark Food & Brew Festival made its debut. How did things go? Well, on July 29 we will present our 19th edition — that speaks volumes.
I’ve always maintained that events help define a place. In group presentations, I’ve underscored that point by showing the audience a slide of Max Yasgur’s farm and asking if anyone can identify it (no one ever can). Then I show the next slide — the farm in full concert mode. “Woodstock!” they exclaim. Thus, the Yasgur farm has been redefined into eternity.
Certainly, the Food & Brew is no Woodstock. Just like the 15-year Wilmington Grand Prix is no Tour de France and the three-decades-plus City Loop Series is no Mardi Gras.
But for some, those events were an introduction to our communities. Just like in 1979, when the Halloween Loop was my introduction to Wilmington.
First impressions are, indeed, a unique opportunity. And their impact may be greater than first imagined.