The Yakima Valley is known for its agriculture, for being a worldwide leader in the production of crops such as hops, apples and cherries. And while the area has long been known as a major hub for growing food, it hasn’t always been recognized for its restaurants.

Yakima Valley Restaurant Week changed that. And with the event committee’s dedication and continued creative thinking, it’s no wonder the group took the title for 2020’s Best Community Event.

Yakima Valley Restaurant Week originally launched in 2018. “This was going to be the third year. It initially came out of the Leadership Yakima program through the Chamber of Commerce,” said Matt Uhlman, who started the event with his brother, Michael Uhlman.

Matt Uhlman had gone through the Leadership Yakima program in 2017, and he and Michael had thrown the idea around, but it was hard to figure out how to get things started. The following year, Michael went through the program and he pitched the idea as a project for the group — and they liked it.

“Their group was the catalyst behind the first year,” said Matt Uhlman.

When restaurant week kicked off that first year, close to 15 restaurants participated. “There was a flurry of restaurant activity, and it was a nice opportunity to highlight what was going on in Yakima,” said Matt Uhlman. That year, the event raised enough money to donate $5,000 to Yakima’s Urban Kitchen program, dedicated to teaching culinary and business skills to local youths.

After the success of the first year, a small committee formed to grow the event. In 2019, the participation from restaurants doubled, featuring close to 32 restaurants, and at that point, the event was a growing success.

And then 2020 rolled around.

Hosting a restaurant week was a very new idea for Yakima in 2018, but it certainly had been done before. Seattle and Spokane host a large restaurant week event early in the year, and typically the timing has to do with when restaurants experience a lull in business and need help the most. The 2020 dates were set for March 20-28, with 50 restaurants eager to participate.

“We had everything printed and ready to go. The week before we were supposed to start we said, ‘We can’t, in good conscience, tell people to be going out right now, because we don’t know what this is,’” said Matt Uhlman. The 2020 Yakima Valley Restaurant Week was officially canceled, and on March 23, the first Stay at Home order was issued by Gov. Jay Inslee in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The incredible resilience of businesses, and community events alike, prevailed throughout 2020, and it was a year to creatively pivot. The Yakima Valley Restaurant Week committee was no exception.

In June, as the weather was getting nicer, the group decided to try something else.

“When we got to a point that people seemed more comfortable, we thought we’d try to do something that would encourage people to still get out and support restaurants,” said Matt Uhlman.

The group purchased $2,500 in gift cards from local restaurants and they launched the Mask On For Takeout campaign, encouraging community members to get takeout, take a photo of themselves in their mask and post it on social media. Participants were asked to tag Yakima Valley Restaurant Week on Facebook or Instagram, and winners received $100 gift cards to participating restaurants, with some $25 gift cards thrown in the mix.

“The first two weeks we had a lot of engagement,” said Mike Uhlman. And ultimately, the campaign fulfilled its purpose: shining a light on the talented restaurants throughout the Yakima Valley in hopes they would continue to be supported.

As the annual event continues to build, the committee is busy planning and looking at feasible options for Yakima Valley Restaurant Week 2021.

“Our intent is to move forward,” said Mike Uhlman. “It’s all about supporting restaurants.”