Taste of D.C.: Come for the food, stay for the chili-eating contest …
By Sarah Valerio
In the minds of Washingtonians, Taste of D.C. is as synonymous with the fall season as Oktoberfest, pumpkin picking and the changing of the leaves.
This year’s annual culinary festival will be bigger than ever; featuring more than 70 restaurants, a beer garden showcasing 40 different beers from around the world, a Food Truck Alley, Family Zone, Farm-to-Fork Zone, and over 40 musical acts, including headliners Sean Paul, Andy Grammar and Eric Hutchinson. Attendees will be treated to chef demonstrations and the much-heralded Ben’s Chili Bowl’s World Chili Eating Championship.
However, the grand fanfare expected this weekend wasn’t always the case. After becoming a popular attraction and burgeoning success in the 1990s, Taste was plagued by problems including postponements and cancellations in the 2000s. The issues winnowed crowds and created an uncertain future for the once-great local tradition.
Enter Steuart Martens. When Martens, a fifth-generation Washingtonian and star of Season 10 of “The Apprentice,” took on Taste of D.C. as CEO, he saw the chance to work his magic as an entrepreneurial turnaround artist on a failing venture. But Taste was in bad shape, akin to a beautiful, albeit neglected, old mansion.
“It was falling apart,” he said. “The facade was remarkable, but the guts were rotten. My team and I have dutifully set about to strip it to the cement foundation and rebuild it, beam by beam.”
This year, Taste is adding a charitable affiliation with the United Service Organizations (USO), which Martens cites as the aspect he would like to build out the most moving forward.
“I am incredibly proud of the work we have done and the direction we are headed. I hope it continues to grow in both size and scope. We have made remarkable strides to expand this event in terms of programming and production value,” noted Martens.
“Having the chance to leave your mark is every entrepreneur’s dream,” Martens added. “Having the chance to leave your own mark in your hometown? Well, that transcends a dream and is really a fantasy. This is the adult equivalent of running outside to scrape your initials into setting cement with a small stick. It is the chance to make a lasting, somewhat permanent signature on the ground beneath you and the people around you.”
Taste of D.C. takes over Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 14th streets and runs October 6 through 8, from noon-7 p.m. Tickets here.