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Oyster Fest Hopes to Pack the Plaza Again

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The last time revelers swarmed the Arcata Plaza for Oyster Fest was 2019, the pre-pandemic Before Times, when long lines, sunburn and a hangover were the looming fears. Following two years of virtual events and a ticketed in-person event in the Creamery District last June, the annual bivalve bacchanalia is set to take over the town's main square Saturday, June 10. With the hoped-for crowds comes the revival of the blind-judged oyster competition.

Gil Miracle, who took his post as event coordinator of Arcata Main Street early this year, is optimistic about the turnout. "If the sponsorships are any indication, we're gonna have a banner year for attendees as well," he says. Last year's event, early in the return to large public gatherings, brought some 6,000 attendees who paid the $15 cover charge. A year later and without fencing or fees, he says, "I think 12,000 is a pretty solid floor; we could hit 15,000. I don't wanna be cocky but it could be a record year."

Organizers worked with Zero Waste Humboldt to minimize the impact of the anticipated throng, requiring compostable packaging at all food and drink stalls and reusable/recyclable aluminum cups only. There'll be no plastic and no glass — be ready to have your bag checked, too. "We have a compost bin that's going to be bigger than our trash bin," says Miracle. To cut down on traffic, there'll be bike valet service at 10th and G streets, which he describes as "a coat check for your bike," and shuttles running to Arcata High School and Murphy's Market to the corner of 10th and H streets by the Minor. "Leave your dogs and coolers at home and come ready to have a good time," he advises.

Vendors, too, are banking on the resurgence of crowds, with 33 ponying up the $600 fee for 10-by-20-foot food stalls. (Non-food vendor fees are $150.) It's a serious uptick from the handful of vendors that scrambled to serve long lines and mostly sold out of oysters early in the day last year.

"It was hard to get people to participate in the last years and I get it," says Arcata Vice Mayor and Executive Director of the Arcata Chamber of Commerce Meredith Matthews. "It's just a huge commitment in terms of time and labor ... staffing your restaurant and still having enough labor to run a booth all day. It's a big ask." And when in-person gathering still felt new, the ask was an even bigger risk for vendors hoping to turn a profit. "I think this year it's going to be amazing.

Maya Matsumoto, who has owned Obento with partner Shin Tamura since 2019, says their first foray into the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival last year had a steep learning curve that has them more prepared this time around. "That was our first festival and it was a little stressful because it was very busy; there weren't that many vendors." Obento feeds Cal Poly Humboldt students on campus and sells evening takeout, but the festival stall was a big change in terms of timing and working with only one fryer. "I definitely am grateful that it's on the plaza again. That space last year was a little too cramped."

Matsumoto expects three or four times the attendees Saturday, for which Obento has ordered 17 gallons of oysters through Pacific Seafood. With electricity provided on the plaza, there'll also be multiple refrigeration units, two fryers and a flat-top grill. "I think it'll be worth it for us if we can do numbers similar to last year." Obento will also be vying for Best Oyster this time around. "We didn't enter last year because we were kind of intimidated."

Matthews is heading up the oyster competition with a group of veteran judges: Humboldt County Supervisor Mike Wilson, Arcata Mayor Sarah Schaefer, Jada Brotman, Bob Doran, Michael Bettencourt of sponsor Pacific Paradise, and (Journal contributors) Jessica Ashley Silva and Wendy Chan. "Everybody's happy we can be in one place and not drive around," says Matthews. Instead of presentations by chefs at their restaurants, the panel will sample anonymous entries and score them to determine the best hot, cold, locavore and best in show winners. The requirement that contestants be vendors has been relaxed somewhat to broaden participation and include last year's champion independent chef David Orluck.

Out on the plaza, the rest of us can queue up for oysters from Tide to Table, Cam's Pizza, North Bay Shellfish, Eureka High School Cheer, Restaurant 511, Bear River Casino, Nori, the Oyster Lady, Tomo and Manzanilla Kitchen. The alcoholic lineup is headlined by Mad River Brewing Co., the only beer brand at the festival, with its Shuck It brew. Humboldt Cider Co.'s Aw Shucks cider, Humboldt Distillery vodka, and wines from Briceland Vineyards, Trinity River Vineyards and Nevermore Cellars will also be flowing.

Matthews' own favorite oyster is a "fresh Kumo with Tobasco and lemon juice. I'm a purist — maybe a little horseradish." Still, she's excited to see Humboldt's culinary creativity on full display again.

"I hope that 15,000 people show up. I hope it puts us back on the map," says Matthews. "Arcata needs it; we need it."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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