Baton Rouge man the driving force behind New Jersey Crawfish Festival

When the oil bust of the 1980s dried up jobs for electricians, Michael Arnone, of Baton Rouge, found them in New Jersey, but that was a long way from the tastes and sounds he loved.

So, he decided to import them. To say he’s been successful is an understatement.

May 30 through June 1, Arnone will hold his 25th annual Crawfish Fest in Augusta, N.J. He expects about 15,000 to 18,000 people to show up to eat 10,000 pounds of crawfish and assorted other south Louisiana delicacies, and to listen and dance to musical acts like Funky Meters, Marcia Ball, JJ Grey & Mofro, and Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience.

It’s a far cry from 1989, when Arnone, 54, decided to bring a slice of Louisiana to the Garden State. He rented a small pavilion, hired a Cajun band from Connecticut — we’ll pause so that can sink in — and a country-western band, had 300 pounds of crawfish flown in and printed up 1,500 tickets. Seventy people bought them.

“I’ve always been optimistic,” he said.

And his optimism has been rewarded.

That original crowd was made up primarily of Louisiana ex-pats who longed for some real Louisiana food after having been fooled by faux Cajun cuisine that was heavy on the cayenne and light on authenticity. Word of mouth took it from there, and the crowds doubled and tripled each of the first three years.

In the fourth year, Arnone was able to book the band Buckwheat Zydeco, and that further helped put the Crawfish Fest on the map.

And the map was advantageous. About 40 miles northwest of New York City and about the same distance southeast of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Arnone said a lot of LSU and Tulane alumni began coming, many on buses shuttling them from New York City.

But not just them. Arnone said recent crowds are only 20 to 30 percent from Louisiana. The rest are those who simply wish they were there.

“There are a lot of people who visit New Orleans, who visit Breaux Bridge, and they absolutely love Louisiana,” Arnone said. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask if I know the bartender at a certain bar … in New Orleans. I don’t, but they do.”

The festival outgrew two locations and now has settled at the 130-acre Sussex County Fairgrounds, where Arnone has set up separate campsites for people who want a party atmosphere (New Orleans Camp), a quieter scene (Baton Rouge Camp) and large RVs (Madisonville Camp).

At the festival itself, there are four food courts and three stages for 22 musical acts featuring Cajun, Zydeco, Delta blues, New Orleans R&B, brass, gospel and jazz. Past headliners have included Aaron Neville, Doctor John and Beausoleil.

Plus, that crustacean headliner — crawfish.

Arnone has them trucked in from Bayou Pigeon, and he is thankful that their numbers are finally increasing after a longer and colder than usual winter.

“A few weeks ago I was checking the prices, and at $4 to $5 a pound, was starting to wonder,” he said. “I’m hoping to get them at $1.25. There have been some years where we jokingly called it the corn and potatoes festival, because we just couldn’t get the amount of crawfish we wanted.”

Arnone came home to Louisiana in 2000, but he returns annually to hold the festival, which is always the weekend after Memorial Day. Responses to the festival’s Facebook page indicate that interest remains as high as ever.

“When I posted that I had arrived, I got 200 likes,” Arnone said. “The other day I posted a photo of an oyster po-boy, and it got 500 likes.”