Thousands of food festivals take place across the U.S. each year and, depending on your location, dozens could be happening right outside your door. We asked seasoned food festival veterans to share the biggest perks of participation as well as their tips for a successful event.
1. You’ll gain new customers. Herb Karlitz, c.e.o. of Karlitz & Company, which organizes the popular Harlem EatUp! festival each year, says that food festivals expose you to foodies and those who may become new customers. “Food festivals are an opportunity to speak to guests about your food and engage them,” he says. “It’s also an opportunity to see what your peers are doing; walk around, meet others, taste what they’re offering.”
“Food festivals are way more powerful that classic advertising or social media to get people into the restaurant,” says Stephane Bombet, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based Bombet Hospitality Group. “It’s very engaging to be able to meet new customers, talk to them, explain your concept and then feed them a sample of a dish you are serving at your restaurant. People who go to food festivals are the audience you want to reach out to—they love food, they go out often and they know their food.”
2. You’ll make new connections. "The truth is, it’s a very collaborative profession, and though there’s some friendly competition within, I’d say it’s an industry that really supports itself as a whole and wants to see and deliver the best food experience it can,” says Justin Fields, g.m. at The Joule in Dallas. “Being at local and regional festivals lets us reconnect with farmers and other purveyors which, in turn, feeds our inspiration. In the end, it’s all about relationships, which is exactly what the right festivals celebrate."
3. It’s a feel-good way to give back. “We’ve always viewed food events as an invaluable way to raise resources for important, charitable causes and as a chance to join forces with other noteworthy restaurants,” says Maxi Silva, g.m. at SushiSamba in Miami Beach. “This June, we're supporting No Kid Hungry at South Florida's Taste of the Nation. It's an amazing way to raise awareness, while also treating festival-goers to our signature bites.”
Brad Manke, v.p. of ViewHouse, with two locations in Colorado, agrees. “It's always easier for us to say yes to a food festival or event when we can support a charitable cause outside of our own doors. It's our responsibility to the community to bring attention to and support events for the greater good," he says/
4. It’s good marketing. “We’ve participated in Chicago’s Wing Fest for the past five years and look at it as a marketing expense; we’ve even reached out to our food suppliers for food donations.” says Justin Bobin, g.m. at Buffalo Wings & Rings in Chicago. “When we do well at the event, the organizers hook us up with local press that helps publicize the restaurant.” During the last three events, Bobin says the restaurant has had shirts made and sold tickets to a reception event. “We invite about 55 of our own fans to a happy hour before the event, hand out shirts, take them on a bus to the event and then they wear our shirt around the event,” he says.
1. Start small and consider your target audience. “If this is your first experience, perhaps choose a smaller, more intimate festival rather than one of the larger ones where the number of guests can be overwhelming,” suggests Karlitz.
“We do the festivals that have the biggest attendance, but also the ones that reach out to the demographic that fits our restaurant concept,” adds Bombet.
2. Choose quality over quantity. “Being selective is important because when you outsource part of your culinary team for an event, you need to simultaneously uphold quality in your own kitchen,” says Manke. “We’ve found a lot of value from quality events versus quantity of guests; the best food events we’ve participated in have been intimate.”
“Research the event to see if the return is there,” suggests Bobin. “How much press is behind it and how many people will see it?”
3. Keep the menu simple. “Make sure your menu item is not too complicated; you don’t want to be so involved with prepping and plating that you can’t interact with consumers,” says Karlitz. “We ask for tasting-size portions.”
Bombet agrees, adding, “Make sure you pick a bite that is easy to prepare; people don't want to wait in line for food. Bring enough staff and make sure it's an easy bite to assemble.”
4. Bring enough food. In addition to being uncomplicated, Karlitz also says not to skimp on the amount of food you bring to an event. “You don’t want to be one of the first to run out of food; that’s a missed opportunity with guests,” he says.
5. Bring chatty employees. “Bring staff members who love to talk to customers,” suggests Karlitz. “Maybe one person who serves as more front of house, and a couple creating the plates.”
6. Share your story. Don’t forget to share photos and/or video from the day of the event on your social pages and website. Those who were there will like sharing the photos, and those who weren’t there will see that you’re involved in the community. “In the week following the event we uploaded pics from the event and tweeted accomplishments,” says Bobin.