Ask Scott Fraser about his volunteerism spirit on view in Oak Harbor year round, and he’s sure to evoke the name Keith Bartlett.
A local restaurant owner like Fraser, Bartlett began cooking and serving a free Thanksgiving Day dinner in 2001, opening his Pot Belly Deli to all.
The holiday dinner turned into an annual tradition. Now called the North Whidbey Community Harvest Celebration, it continued after Bartlett’s 2004 death and annually hosts some 3,000 people and attracts hundreds of volunteers and sponsoring businesses.
Bartlett became Fraser’s role model when he opened his own restaurant, Frasers Gourmet Hideaway, in 2005. Years earlier, Bartlett had asked Fraser to join him in the large-scale cooking effort and the two bonded over preparing turkey and trimmings.
“It wasn’t just to feed the poor,” Fraser said of Bartlett’s idea. “He was adamant that we have a gift in the restaurant business in that we know how to feed lots of people and that we should organize and create a community gathering.”
Fraser credits Bartlett for “changing a lot of peoples’ lives, like myself, because he had such a giving spirit. He taught me that Oak Harbor is a small enough community that you can really make a difference.”
Known for his long, twirling mustache that’s become the logo of his Oak Harbor restaurant, Fraser followed in Bartlett’s footsteps when he came up with the idea of a summertime PigFest to thank his customers and community.
He approached other local businesses on Fidalgo Avenue and they all somehow agreed to his idea of closing off the street, roasting thousands of pounds of pork and giving it all away in a day-long barbecue.
“It started as a block party, as a way to say ’thank you’ and a day to enjoy our community,” he said. “We invited everyone in the whole city to see what our little block was all about.”
Celebrating its 10th anniversary Aug. 13, PigFest has become a popular destination for professional barbecuers to vie for prizes, and for thousands of residents and visitors to stand in long lines to feast on plenty of pork, listen to live music and participate in many family events.
Last year, some 15,000 people attended.
Although the fest is free, it’s also raised thousands of dollars for various non-profit organizations over the years.
Fraser, who adopted Oak Harbor as his home some 26 years ago after wandering south from British Columbia, is also mentor to hundreds of aspiring chefs.
He’s led Oak Harbor High School’s nationally touted culinary arts program for years. It finished second among 6,000 schools in 2010; 16th this past school year and regularly tops the state competition. A few of his graduates have also landed jobs in top-notch restaurants.
Fraser’s triad of community service hasn’t gone unnoticed by others in his field.
In 2015, Frasers Gourmet Hideaway was recognized as the Washington Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Neighbor Award winner in the small restaurant category.
The award celebrates outstanding charitable service by restaurant operators.
The following year, Fraser received the organization’s humanitarian award. It specifically honors an individual restaurant operator for his or her personal commitment to community service.
Despite his year-round volunteering efforts, Fraser continues to insist he’s getting the better end of the deal.
“It makes you feel great giving back to the community,” he said, sitting outside on his restaurant porch reflecting on his seasonal schedule of giving.
“When one event ends, planning for the next begins. And I try and run a restaurant at the same time,” he jokes.
Although Fraser admits, “sometimes it’s hard to get started,” on the next cooking-for-a cause undertaking, he has no plans to slow down.
“It’s one of the most rewarding feelings when you see how the community comes out, when you see how much can happen. It almost becomes addictive.
“Keith (Bartlett) definitely instilled the art of giving in me.”