It started 26 years ago as a small festival to celebrate local businesses.
Companies set up booths along Bahia Beach and welcomed residents with information and demonstrations of their trade. A couple of refreshment stands also awaited those who walked the event and went home.
The Ruskin Seafood Festival humbly began in 1989, but over the past 20 years, it has grown to be one of the biggest and most successful in the SouthShore area. Organizers expect to draw families from all around Tampa Bay for the two-day event on Nov. 7-8.
Festival organizer and SouthShore Chamber of Commerce executive director Melanie Morrison has seen tremendous change and improvements throughout her 10-year involvement with the festival.
"I've attended the festival as a resident, then as a vendor, but when I was put in charge of organizing it, I started seeing it through much different eyes," Morrison said. "As a mother, the first thing I wanted to do was expand the activities for kids."
Now the children's area at the festival not only offers paid events such as the bouncy house, reverse bungee, a rock-climbing wall, pony rides and a first-ever Gravitron, but there are also plenty of free activities such as magic tricks from Jumbo the Clown, balloon art and face painting.
"We've really tried to create a balance where there are fun activities for all the kids who attend," Morrison said. "Some things have to be paid, but there are just as many things for free."
Festival organizers have expanded in other areas over the years and music is definitely one of those.
In a first, the chamber obtained a large stage for concerts with professional sound equipment and lighting. Bands will perform for most of the festival featuring outstanding local talent. Kozmic Pearl will open the festivities on Saturday morning followed by the Randy McNeeley Band. Fleetwood Max will headline the Saturday evening activities with a tribute to the iconic rock group that featured Stevie Nix. There also will be a military tribute.
On Sunday, award-winning Hispanic musician Joe Zuniga will bring his unique style to the stage followed by calypso/reggae entertainers Spy vs. Spy. A steel drum band also will perform on stage throughout the afternoon, reflecting the wide variety of music and entertainment.
The seafood festival also has grown tremendously in terms of vendors. More than 100 will attend this year including 25 arts and crafts vendors. Del Calhoun, a local artist, has been participating since 2009. His booth, Fish on Art, features various types of beautiful, wood-carved fish.
"The festival has grown so much, but they are so much better organized and more relaxed about it," Calhoun said. "It's just fun."
Along with the arts, the event features a large boating display and fishing and outdoor sports exhibitions. Sixty business will be on hand to introduce themselves, give away free trinkets and amass new customers. There also will be 20 environmental and nonprofit organizations from the area looking to raise awareness and provide educational information.
And finally, the best reason to attend the seafood festival: the food. More than 20 vendors will prepare mouth-watering treats to suit every taste. Shrimp, crab, grouper, catfish, mullet, chowders and anything that resembles seafood will be highlighted, as well as plenty of standard festival favorites such as corn dogs, burgers and chicken.
Mullet Shack owner Steve Fagen, a six-year festival veteran, plans to fry up some delicious fish.
"I fix mullet, catfish, fried green tomatoes and cheese grits," Fagen said. "I just love good old Southern cooking."
Morrison said the chamber also has sought vendors to offer lighter fare.
Beer and wine are also available at the festival, as well as frozen lemonade, soft drinks and water.
When the festival outgrew its location at Little Harbor, the chamber moved it to Ruskin's E.G. Simmons Park on 19th Avenue NW. Also located on a beautiful site by the bay, the park offers plenty of parking and easy in-and-out access to the festival. It's the perfect spot for a day of relaxing, playing, exploring, shopping and, of course, eating.
"Our goal is to make this festival a smaller version of the (Florida) Strawberry Festival (in Plant City)," Morrison said. "People can come out, have a drink, listen to some great music, let their kids play, bring the dog, see your neighbors, eat some fantastic food. It's just a wonderful weekend of fun."
This is not just a small Ruskin festival any more. It's an experience all of SouthShore and beyond enjoys.
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]