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Taste of Pinellas will take a break in 2013

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 01:28 AM

The Taste of Pinellas benefit for All Children's Hospital started 26 years ago as a food and music festival in downtown St. Petersburg.

Back then, there were few events showcasing Pinellas County restaurants on such a scale. The waterfront shindig in Vinoy Park, which at one time featured such landmark restaurants as Bob Heilman's Beachcomber and The Lobster Pot, became so successful that it attracted performers Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt and Huey Lewis in recent years.

That was the problem, critics said. The Taste became too much about The Music and not as much about The Food. As a result, attendance sagged and costs soared. Well-regarded restaurants drifted away and were replaced by lesser-known operators.

In the meantime, the number of local food festivals and charity fundraisers has exploded, making it more difficult for restaurants to afford to donate food and staff to work them. Downtown entertainment options like Tampa Bay Rays games also bit into the audience.

On Friday, All Children's Hospital announced Taste of Pinellas would go on hiatus for 2013 so it can be retooled.

"Today, there are many more community events and entertainment venues competing for the public's time and money," hospital Marketing Vice President Cindy Rose said in a statement.

"We felt it was a good time to take a strategic look at all facets of the event to see if we can make it better for the future," Rose said.

The hospital said it plans to collaborate with restaurants to plan a new version of The Taste.

"The whole goal is to take a deep breath and stand back with the various people we partner with," spokeswoman Ann Miller said Friday. "The audience is changing and evolving. We need to determine how we make this a success going forward."

Tyson Grant, executive chef of participating restaurants Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House and The Hangar, said the event long ago stopped being about the restaurants.

"Now it's a concert with food," Grant said. "The caliber of restaurants has gone down, down, down. Back at the beginning, there wasn't the pretzel guy and the popcorn girl and fair food."

Held largely during daytime hours in May, The Taste of Pinellas has endured tropical storms and intense heat. Grant said he thinks the whole event needs to be re-imagined, possibly as a one-night event.

Grant said his restaurant partner Steve Westphal is the event's restaurant chair and has offered ideas to get The Taste back on track.

All ideas are welcome at this point, said Miller, who didn't know how much of a funding hole not having the event would create.

"You can basically say take out a clean sheet and imagine where we go from here," she said. "Everything is on the table as far as that's concerned."


jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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