By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The Union Square neighborhood gave fall an early welcome last Thursday at Harvest in the Square, the annual culinary event that raises funds for the park’s maintenance and programming, this year bringing in $352,000 and over $5 million since the event began.
The event celebrated its 20th anniversary this year and Coffee Shop co-founder Eric Petterson, who worked with restaurateur Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group to launch the event in 1995, said he was happy with what it’s become.
“It’s just an amazing event as far as raising money for Union Square Park,” he said. “It’s weird how time flies. This was really hard work when we started.”
Union Square Partnership executive director Jennifer Falk said that more than half of the money raised at the event this year was profit and in addition to the annual landscaping work, the Partnership will be using the money to improve the landscaping on the Park Avenue South and Union Square East medians from 15th to 18th Streets.
“In the roadbeds, at least half if not more of the plantings are not doing well so we’re been working to improve those,” she said.
This year, there were more than 50 vendors offering samples from their restaurants and more than a dozen wineries and breweries, as well as exhibitors featuring iced tea and specialty sodas.
A number of new restaurants participated in Harvest in the Square this year, including Adalya on Irving Place offering yellow tomato gazpacho, Florian on Park Avenue South offering meatballs, Dylan’s Candy Bar, which was giving away free paint cans filled with gummy bears, and a handful of other new vendors.
One of the more unusual vendors, for an event that focuses primarily on food, was Starbright Floral Designs. The company designed the floral arrangement for the event and it was also the first year it participated as an exhibitor.
“The fact that they use the money for park beautification, it’s nice to have that collusion,” said Kristin Grogan, who was representing the shop. “It works out well that we’re a plant shop and we can bring everything back to nature.”
Returning restaurants included Big Daddy’s on Park Avenue South, which offered a chicken and waffle sundae complete with ice cream cone, BLT Prime, which was featuring coffee-rubbed hanger steak with jalapeno compound butter and Blue Water Grill, which was offering hamachi crudo with yuzu, mint and chili.
Head chef Thomas Contessa of Lillie’s Union Square, another returning vendor, said that one of the secrets to his Irish beef stew is Guinness.
“I promise it’s the best you’ve ever had,” he claimed.
Petterson said that when the event started 20 years ago, he and Meyer rounded up 21 restaurants, many of which have closed since then. Falk said that the Partnership recently found an old menu from the second Harvest in the Square, held in 1996, and since the participating restaurants probably didn’t change as much from year to year back then, the list was probably representative of the original participants; no more than a small handful were still involved in the event this year.
The restaurants of the event’s two founders, the Coffee Shop and Union Square Cafe, were, of course, involved back in the early years, in addition to Blue Water Grill and Gramercy Tavern. Other participants back in the mid-90s that remain in the neighborhood today included the National Arts Club, City Bakery and Pete’s Tavern.
Petterson said that his and Meyer’s intention with the event back when they started it was to bring attention to the farmer’s market in Union Square and to support the local vendors.
“In the first year we were all about helping the greenmarket, and local farmers and vineyards,” he said. “It was a celebration for an organization that was helping the neighborhood. Not having a boring party with linens, but celebrating the greenmarket outside.”
Falk noted that the event was considered ahead of its time when it first started because food and wine festivals and similar events were much rarer or nonexistent.
“This civic mindedness that we have now was not as commonplace back then,” she said. “This event has really created a community feeling and a family feeling, and it shows the strength of the culinary community in Union Square.”
Petterson noted that the original event was definitely a learning experience, but said it was worth the struggle.
“All these businesses bought into it and it evolved into what you see,” he said. “It wasn’t as organized as it is now. We learned a lot in that first year. It was magical, even though we ran out of plates.”