Steve Chu, a co-owner of Baltimore-based Ekiben, said the Asian fusion cart-turned-restaurant has been applying to be a vendor at the Towsontown Spring Festival for years.
This year, for the first time, Ekiben got a “yes.” They will be serving up their signature steamed rice bun sandwiches with fried chicken and rice bowls on Saturday and Sunday, May 5 and 6, in downtown Towson.
“Being able to go is, like, a total honor,” Chu said. “It’s super popping and very popular; it’s hard to get in there.”
Ekiben is one of many trendy, experience-focused food vendors congregating at the festival this year, as part of what organizer and Towson Chamber of Commerce president Nancy Hafford said is an effort to keep the 51-year-old annual festival from “going stale.”
“People are foodies nowadays,” Hafford said. “They have sophisticated palates … They want different and unique dining experiences."
This year’s festival, held from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 5 and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 6, will stretch across eight blocks of downtown Towson, centered around the square in front of Towson’s Old Court House.
The weekend festival will have some of the old staples, like carnival rides, that Hafford said parents visit with their children to pass on traditions from their own childhood. It will have a beer garden, where people can relax with drinks while listening to live music. And it will also, as in previous years, have a market with more than 300 vendors, who Hafford said will sell everything from hand-blown glass to a new roof.
Though traditional carnival food options like funnel cakes and sausages will still be available, Hafford said, organizers this year are making a conscious effort to diversify their options with “gourmet” trucks offering cuisines from around the world.
Jeff Morris, who owns Flat Chance food truck and caterer, based in White Marsh, said this will also be his first time as a vendor at the Towsontown festival.
“This is the first year they’ve offered it to food trucks,” Morris said. “We’re excited … We are from this side of town, so it’s an opportunity to see what the festival has to offer.”
Towsontown is just one of many festivals that have been reaching out to Flat Chance and asking it to sell its signature flatbread sandwiches, Morris said. Though they are always busy with food truck festivals, recently, Morris said, “some more traditional festivals are now starting to reach out and invite us in.”
Morris, also a vice president at the Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association, said food trucks have a “certain draw” that is growing in popularity.
“It’s the experience,” Morris said. “Meals that are prepared are typically done with a twist, with restaurant quality.” For instance, he said, his truck serves Angus steak and smokes all its own meats.
Hafford said this year organizers were careful to keep options diverse.
“Never before were we picky,” she said. “Now, we make sure we don’t have 10 taco trucks.”
Not only will this year’s festival have more food options, but unlike previous years, those food options will be next to the entertainment, in a courtyard beer garden by the Old Court House, Hafford said.
The changes are largely inspired by the army of hundreds of volunteers who make the festival happen, she added.
“One thing that keeps it fresh and new is that we embrace new people,” Hafford said, referring to her volunteer troops. “I have never come up with a new idea. It’s always someone else who has gone places or seen things.”
That planning and brainstorming starts a week after the previous year’s festival ends. It costs about $100,000 to put on the festival, and Hafford estimated that she spends about three months of her entire work year readying it.
If this year goes well, the Chamber of Commerce will net around $75,000, which Hafford said will help pay the chamber’s two full-time employee salaries, including hers, and pour back into the community through streetscape and education projects.
Admission to the festival is free; most of the money raised comes from vendor fees, Hafford said.
Garden Days prelude
Two days before the festival, the chamber also will host Gardens Day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., surrounding the old courthouse. The 32nd annual event will offer flowers and garden decor for sale, as well as art, jewelry, food trucks and live performances, according to a news release.
Ultimately, Hafford said, the festival is less about the money than it is about drawing people to Towson.
“Our purpose, besides supporting businesses, is to bring and keep people in our community, to show and highlight it so people come and say, ‘I really like this town,’” Hafford said.
About 200,000 people are expected to attend the two-day festival this year, according to a news release.
“We have close to 100 events per year; that amounts to about one every three days,” Hafford said of the chamber. “But that one is by far the biggest.”
Still, after thousands of dollars spent, months of work and the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, the festival’s success comes down to one capricious bit of fate: weather.
Last year, the annual festival’s 50th anniversary, the weather was chilly, and Hafford said attendance was “a bit of a bummer.”
Susan Liverman, owner of Polley’s Duck-In Food Truck, which was at the Towsontown Festival for the first time last year, agreed.
“Last year, we weren’t so lucky with the weather,” Liverman said. But the owner of Duck-In, which sells kid-friendly staples, hot dogs and veggie burgers, said she lives in the Towson area and has children at Towson High School, so she is coming back this year to “support the community.”
“Hopefully this year it will be good,” she said.
If the sun shines this weekend, Hafford said the Towsontown Festival has the advantage of being the “first out of the gate” as festival season starts, and could draw huge crowds of people desperate for a bit of springtime after a long, cold winter.
“I just need those two days,” Hafford said.
Gardens Day: Thursday, May 3, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free admission.
Towsontown Spring Festival: Saturday, May 5, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 6, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Free admission.