Inaugural Taste of Helena finds success

Published 1:21 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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HELENA – On Thursday, March 14 from 6-8 p.m. in the Helena Sports Complex, the city of Helena celebrated the local food scene with their first Taste of Helena event. With cupcakes, jambalaya, freeze dried Skittles and wings, the Taste of Helena had a little something for everyone.

According to the event organizer and Helena City Councilmember Hewy Woodman, the Taste of Helena served as a fundraiser for the Helena High School Future Business Leaders with the goal of fostering the unique and growing food industry in Helena.

“(Taste of Helena) is a food festival celebrating local eateries in Helena with the goal of supporting local chefs,” Woodman said. “You don’t want to live somewhere where there is only food chains and national chains. You want to live somewhere where there is variety, where people are coming up with new ideas and concepts that taste different.”

Considering the sold-out event included a plethora of vendors and more than 200 people in attendance throughout the night, the process of planning the Taste of Helena was no cake walk.

According to Woodman, the idea to host Tase of Helena came from attending a similar event in Pelham last year. Woodman and his friend, Kabeer Ahmed, attended the Taste of Pelham event in 2023. As the two sampled the dishes from Pelham businesses and witnessed the celebrations, Ahmed reportedly turned to Woodman and asked why Helena didn’t have their own version of event.

“Y’know, Kabeer, we should totally do it,” Woodman recalled telling him.

From there, Woodman contacted Pelham City Council President Maurice Mercer and Russell Biciste, a volunteer for the Taste of Pelham. The two walked Woodman through the event and shared the stories of their successes and failures to help the city of Helena in their planning process.

“Russell and Maurice were so good about letting me ask questions,” Woodman said. “They weren’t hiding information. They were very supportive of the idea of Helena having (a similar event).”

After sharing his idea with the rest of the Helena City Council, Woodman went to Facebook to solicit volunteers and gauge interest from the community. Together, the City Council assembled a group of enthusiastic residents interested in helping.

One such volunteer, 2023 Ms. Senior Alabama and retired Helena principal Kathy Paiml, shared that she was happy to help the planning committee in any way she could.

“What a great way to support our community and to showcase what we have here in Helena that a lot of places don’t have,” Paiml said. “We’ve got some unique restaurants.”

The volunteers began to meet in a restaurant once a month to divvy tasks and responsibilities. As Taste of Helena grew closer, their meetings became more frequent, from once a month, to once a week.

“Hewy (Woodman) has done a phenomenal job organizing all of this and he put together a great team,” Paiml said. “We were a well-oiled machine.”

One of the first choices the group had to make was to determine which charity the Taste of Helena would support. After a few inquiries, the committee settled on Helena High School’s Future Business Leaders organization. The idea behind this decision was that the business students could partner with different organizations at the event and learn more about how that business operates.

“We wanted something to get the students involved,” Woodman said. “We put these students with the business leaders, so there could be a sort of energy there where they learn about how a business is ran.”

Of course, there could be no Taste of Helena without food to taste, so the committee’s next task was to find businesses to bring to the event. They started by looking at a list of business license holders in Helena and expanded to Facebook to ensure that they included food trucks and home kitchens.  The only real requirement was for the business to call Helena its home.

“We wanted to try to have (businesses with) a connection to Helena­—the stronger the connection, the better,” Woodman said.

Once they decided on the number of businesses they could host, the committee set a number of guests they could accommodate. In addition to obeying the building capacity, organizers wanted to make sure there was enough food to go around.

“We didn’t want to have a situation where people went and only got a nibble of food and then went home hungry,” Woodman said. “We wanted everybody to get a nice-sized sample.”

The final number of guests allowed was 200 people. And although this is a large number, the tickets sold out in advance of the event.

On the night of March 14, those 200 guests gathered in the Helena Sports Complex for an evening of fine dining. Serenaded by the soothing jazz of the Helena High School band, attendees wandered the floor sampling different flavors from classic bakery treats to delightful Asian fusions.

Between sampling different bites, guests wondered which businesses would go home with the first ever Taste of Helena titles. The three award categories featured best sweet, best savory and best overall.

Before the event started, the committee took an assembled panel of judges around to every booth. According to Paiml, the three judges—comprised of the police chief, the fire chief and a fireman—started out strong, but were eventually overwhelmed with the sheer volume of food.

“(The vendors) give you huge bites,” Paiml said. “It’s not like a little teeny-tiny bite. So these poor judges were stuffed by the time they went around. They ended up sharing a plate instead of each getting their own.”

Mere’s Bakes rose to the top of the sweet category while the Cajun delights of Hey Bebe won in best savory. Despite the multitudes of businesses, the judges could only choose one overall winner and they chose to award the title of best overall to Refined To Go.

While Woodman loved every business that attended Taste of Helena, he shared that he was especially glad that James Washington with Refined to Go went home with the prize.

“I’m so happy that Refined to Go won because they’re a locally owned business,” Woodman said. “(Washington) has so much experience in some of the finest kitchens in America. We’re so lucky to have him in Helena. He’s like a hidden gem. You can get five star restaurant quality food in a drive through in Helena.”

Despite the hectic planning process, Woodman shared that the people of Helena made it all worth it.

“My favorite part of the event was how supportive everyone was,” Woodman said. “The people of Helena came and they were very kind and patient to all the vendors. They were very nice to the volunteers. People were so generous with their praise and so patient.”

For more information about the future of Taste of Helena, those interested can visit