In 1972, Matthew Mandell’s mother rented a summer house off Hogan Trail. He was 12 years old.
That was his first taste of Saugatuck. And it’s part of the back story of the Slice of Saugatuck — the neighborhood-and-townwide street fair-food festival-and-more that returns for the 10th time this Saturday.
Mandell’s life took several turns between that summer home and his work today as executive director of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce, and a Representative Town Meeting member from District 1 (including Saugatuck).
He was already an RTM rep — but a full-time stay-at-home dad — in 2011. Looking for a way to bolster the many area restaurants, he asked Sam Gault, whose family-run company had already been there for nearly 150 years, to help sponsor an event.
Gault’s $1,000 covered insurance. Rizzuto’s, Viva Zapata and Dunville’s each threw in $300 more, as “sponsors.”
The first Slice of Saugatuck was free. A band played on the plaza by the river. Saugatuck Craft Butchery used a real pig to demonstrate their butchery craft. There was no beer garden, but plenty of food.
Mandell has a vivid memory of Tiger DeMace calling for more meatballs, sausage and pasta from Mario’s kitchen. “Bring it on for Saugatuck!” he said.
The next year, over 30 restaurants and businesses signed on. Admission was $5 per person; funds went to Homes with Hopes’ pantry. “The Slice is all about food for those who can afford it, and food for those who can’t,” Mandell says.
The Chamber of Commerce planned to take over the third event; a representative shadowed Mandell, to learn operations. But they could not produce a 2013 Slice of Saugatuck.
In early 2014, Chamber leaders met with Mandell. He thought they’d talk about the Slice. Instead, they offered him a job as executive director.
He accepted. Soon he was running both the Chamber of Commerce and Slice of Saugatuck.
Mandell added more bands. He introduced bounce houses for kids, and beer gardens for their parents.
As he looks back on a decade of Slices, Mandell remembers restaurants that have gone: Mario’s, Mystic Market, Mansion Clam House, Tarry Lodge. All were part of Saugatuck life. The Slice remains Saugatuck-centered.
In fact, non-neighborhood businesses that want to participate are politely told “no.”
The 2022 Slice of Saugatuck — set for this Saturday (September 10) — features over 4 dozen restaurants, shops and galleries; 7 bands; 4 bounce houses; a balloon vendor, antique fire truck, and more.
The 2 to 5 p.m. time is a sweet spot. It’s after restaurants’ lunch service — and when the Slice is over, many offer Happy Hour and/or dinner specials.
The original goal of the Slice was to show off Saugatuck — and show how walkable it is. (Also, the neighborhood looks like a pizza slice. Pretty fortuitous considering its long Italian heritage.)
The Slice continues to evolve. New this year: a margarita-making bicycle at Viva Zapata. As you pedal the bike, a chain runs a blender attached to the the handlebars. After all that work: Drink up!
Gone — for insurance reasons — are boat rides.
But after 11 years and 9 shows (the 2020 event was canceled by COVID), the Slice of Saugatuck is as much a part of Westport as their forerunners, the Feast of St. Anthony and Festival Italiano, once were.
Mandell credits town leaders, including the Police and Parks & Recreation Departments, for their help in making the Slice a success.
“Everyone loves it,” he says, a decade after starting the tradition (and 50 years after spending his first summer in Saugatuck).
“People walk around with friends, on a late summer day. They have food and beer. They enjoy the community, and they support the area.”
Or put another way: “Slice is nice!”
(The Slice of Saugatuck is this Saturday, September 10, 2 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $15; children ages 5 to 12, $5). They are available on-site, beginning at 1:45 p.m.; cash only. Click here for more information.)
(Like Slice of Saugatuck, “06880” is also a local tradition. Please click here to donate.)