Some changes are afoot at Harvest on the Harbor, Portland’s annual food and drink festival, as new owners Stefanie Manning and Gabrielle Garofalo gradually put their own stamp on it and bring it, in their words, “to the next level.” This year’s Harvest on the Harbor will be held Oct. 20-23.

The Maine Lobster Chef of the Year event, for example, will be a “celebration,” not a competition. The Grand Tasting has morphed into a partylike “Chef Showcase,” and at this year’s “Market on the Harbor,” you’ll be able to buy the products you taste.

Manning and Garofalo, who lives in New York, purchased the event in February from the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau. (Manning is vice president of circulation and marketing at MaineToday Media, which owns this newspaper. She and her husband also own the Miss Portland Diner.) The two took time out from planning to answer a few questions about this year’s Harvest on the Harbor. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What made you buy Harvest on the Harbor?

MANNING: When I got here to the Press Herald, we were a media partner and I’d make it to some of the events. I always had fun, but it always felt a little out of sync to me with what was going on in the food scene. The CVB (Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau) created it for the intended purpose of bringing tourism to Maine nine years ago when the food scene was very different. They did a very good job, but it just got to the place where the tourists are coming here for the food scene. You don’t need to bring them here. So I think it had, for their purpose, run its course. I got wind of the fact that they were going to put the assets up for sale. I was on the phone one day talking to one of my dearest friends and telling her about it, and she said, “I would totally do that with you.” She was serious, and we kind of dug in and figured it out.

Q: How does a transition like this work? Do you just sign papers, and they hand over all their files?


MANNING: It all happened really quickly. It was an asset sale, so we paid money for the trademark, all of the digital assets – so the website, all their social media with their followers, everybody who had engaged with them digitally. It was participant lists and email sign-up lists and all of their records and all of their files and all of their artwork. We had a head start. Trying to start something like this from scratch, I don’t think we would have thought about that for two seconds.

Q: Why did you decide to drop the Top of the Crop competition?

MANNING: Last year, it wasn’t that well attended, and doing tasting event after tasting event and just changing the theme isn’t special. We’re trying to come up with formats that feel varied and that shake it up a little bit.

GAROFALO: We got a lot of feedback about that. We don’t really want to pit chefs against one another. Yes, there are great competitions and it’s turned into a whole industry on television, so obviously they’re popular. For us, as first timers, it was important to do a celebration and inclusive approach. We even heard from quite a few chefs that if the lobster chef (event), for example, was a competition again, they wouldn’t participate – even if they were past winners.

Q: So it was the chefs, and not the ticket holders, who didn’t like the competition aspect?

MANNING: It was the chefs. I hope this isn’t out of turn, but it was getting harder and harder and harder for the Maine CVB and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative to get chefs to participate.


Q: But it was the most popular event, and people came from all over the country to attend.

MANNING: It was popular because it’s lobster. We’ve had a lot of conversations with the (lobster) marketing collaborative about competition versus celebration. Their focus is not about marketing lobster in Maine. Their job is to market lobster outside of Maine. But they feel so strongly about this event and the Claw Down (held in September in Boothbay Harbor) that those are the only two events in Maine that they still support. Because the Claw Down is such a great competition, we felt like offsetting that with a celebration of Maine lobster.

Q: The Harvest on the Harbor competition came first, though.

MANNING: Yeah. We’re experimenting. This is our first year. It’s becoming obvious who is willing to participate in events and who isn’t able to. We’re hearing about staffing issues, which is such a huge problem in town. There’s a lot of factors that go into having chefs decide whether to participate in these events. It’s challenging.

GAROFALO: We’re trying to balance stuff that we know worked and then learn and take it from there, too.

MANNING: This really is a ramp-up year, which is why we’re focused on the handful of events that we’re doing. We feel good about the way that they punctuate a portion of the food and drink scene. Do we think this is perfect? No, but we need to get through year one to figure out what will be perfect.


Q: The marketplace used to be one of my favorite things. But over the years the number and quality of products declined and there were fewer Maine-made products.

MANNING: The market is a huge ask of (vendors). To bring thousands of people through an event and try to sample to them is really hard. The other learning for us is that (vendors) don’t want to participate in food frenzies. They want an opportunity to engage with people and tell their stories and have people meaningfully taste their product and think about purchasing it.

You can’t call something a market and not have things for sale. For us, that’s one of the bigger experiments. You’ve got to bring in inventory, you’ve got to gauge how much you’re going to sell. But it’s going to be awesome. I have a working list of the vendors who have signed up, and they’re really great companies. Certine will be there and Bluet, Spiked Seltzer, Whole Foods, Rosemont Market, Maine Gold – so we’re excited how that is shaping up. We’re expecting, I would say, around 100 vendors.

Q: What events are you thinking about for the future?

MANNING: We have made a pact in blood not to think past Oct. 23 right now. We have a very large parking lot of ideas, but right now we are just very focused on executing with excellence.

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