Here’s what experienced organizers will tell you about food festivals: They’re logistical nightmares, and they rarely turn a profit. They’re showcases for extraordinary dining scenes, not panaceas for lousy ones, so planners who try to prop up their towns’ culinary reputations with weekend sprees of tasting tents, celebrity chef demos and splashy wine dinners almost always end up exhausted, broke and painfully disappointed.
Savannah Food & Wine Festival
WHEN: Through Nov. 17
WHERE: Locations vary, but Saturday afternoon’s Taste of Savannah is set for Ellis Square.
COST: Events are individually priced at $35-$275.
MORE INFO: Find the complete schedule of classes, demos, dinners and tastings and purchase tickets at www.savannahfoodandwinefest.com.
“I got a lot of calls from people wanting to start festivals, and all I’d say is ‘why?’ ” recalls Angel Postell, founder and longtime executive director of the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival. “Do you have a culinary city? If you don’t have that makeup, if you don’t have the chefs, don’t do it. If you’re doing it to make money, don’t do it.”
Music to Your Mouth Festival
WHEN: Nov. 19-24
WHERE: Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton.
COST: Sold out, but if you’re planning for next year’s festivities, individually priced events this year ranged from $50-$250.
MORE INFO: www. musictoyourmouth.com.
Yet an increasing number of festival dreamers are pressing ahead, cluttering the culinary calendar with multiday food-and-drink extravaganzas.
Charleston Wine + Food Festival
WHEN: March 6-9
WHERE: Various locations
COST: Individually priced events range from $45-$325.
MORE INFO: charleston wineandfood.com
An eater with a sufficient supply of frequent flier miles could attend a festival every single weekend; many chefs and food writers with books to promote very nearly do.
Within state lines, South Carolinians have their pick of three high-profile festivals: Charleston Wine + Food; Euphoria, a seven-year old event in Greenville; and Music To Your Mouth, marking its seventh year at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton later this month.
The proliferation of festivals, including the first-ever Savannah Wine & Food Festival, which got underway Monday with a $150 Farm to Table reception, boggles veterans. They wonder whether the market can support so many seemingly similar programs.
Postell compares the situation to the aquarium building boom she witnessed while serving as the South Carolina Aquarium’s public relations manager in the early 2000s. “It’s like everyone had aquariums, and then no one went to aquariums,” she says.
But the additional competition also has forced existing and upcoming festivals to re-evaluate their offerings, and subtly tweak the standard festival template.
As a result, the best food festivals are now poised to revive the personal intimacy that defined festivals in the years before staging an event meant rounding up every television star armed with a knife roll.
The first food festival
Food television and food festivals grew up together. Lee Schrager launched the charitable event that would eventually become “The Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival presented by Food & Wine” (better known in the trade as just plain South Beach) in 2000, the same year in which 1.5 million people tuned in to watch Bobby Flay and Masaharu Morimoto cook rock crabs on “Iron Chef.”
“When I started, there were none,” Schrager says of high-end food festivals. The then-prevailing culinary event format was a “taste of” fair, featuring restaurant stands selling affordable snacks. But Schrager wanted to create something with the personality and pizazz of the Food & Wine Classic, which dates back to 1982.
“I had gone to Aspen, and I remember thinking it was so beautiful,” Schrager says. “I saw something I knew would be big. I recognized these chefs would be rock stars.”
The Classic was the brainchild of a few friends who liked to drink wine: They invited Julia Child and Marcella Hazan to town, and somehow their drinking sessions became a world-class expo.
Food & Wine publisher Christina Grdovic once asked one of the founders how he had the foresight to establish a culinary festival.
“I didn’t have any foresight,” he told her. “It looked like fun.”
Although the Classic now attracts more than 5,000 attendees, as well as hundreds of chefs and restaurateurs, Grdovic says the event’s formula has remained constant.
“The Food + Wine way is you need to have amazing talent in a beautiful place at a time people want to go there,” she says. “And one thing that’s less sexy, but very, very important, is it needs to be organized within an inch of its life.”
With Food + Wine’s support, Schrager demonstrated the formula could travel: His first festival drew 6,000 guests, a tally that has since grown tenfold.
A few years later, he met with a group of 20 Charleston residents, including Postell, to outline what makes a festival succeed.
“Our first year was really cool,” Postell says of the 2006 edition of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. “I hate that we can’t go back to that model. We had open-air tents with artisans, farmers, a great group of people. Our second year was such a mess: It just became more a tasting trade show kind of thing. But the first year was just like a storybook almost.”
Getting festivals right
One of the current festivals consistently cited among the nation’s best is arranged in a similar fashion. At Music to Your Mouth, which was conceived as a way to stimulate traffic during a traditionally slow week for the residential community in Bluffton, chefs mix freely with guests, ticket sales are capped so there’s one chef for every 20 guests, and chefs aren’t committed to multiple dinners, demos and tastings.
“We always say ‘class over mass,’ ” event organizer Courtney Hampson says, adding how much attendees like “sitting next to Mike Lata at the fire pit.”
Festival organizers agree the festivals that thrive are ones that create opportunities for chefs and guests to interact in meaningful ways. Postell says neglecting to cultivate connections leads to “events where it’s just ‘feed me, let me drink a lot.’ ”
“You have to make it original,” Postell says. “Over 10 years, I saw these festivals hire a Food Network star, or a ‘Top Chef’ star, or, worse, a ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ star. You have to make it about what makes you different. Unless it’s special, I’m not going.”
To distinguish the Savannah Food & Wine Festival, organizer Jan Gourley has crafted a schedule emphasizing California wine. While many festivals take their home regions as their primary focus, Gourley is most interested in providing attendees with experiences not readily available on the East Coast.
The schedule includes a riverboat wine cruise with a Sonoma vintner, a wine stroll and a Michael Mondavi Family Estate dinner. The festival has rented real glassware (not always a given at food festivals) and plans to pour $300 bottles at its grand reserve tasting.
“Culinary is important, but to be legitimate, it has to have good wine behind it,” Gourley says. “For this festival, the winemakers are really the priority.”
Four festival events were sold out by last week, with 35 percent of ticket buyers coming from beyond the driving market. Gourley forecasts 5,000 people will attend the main tasting event, which suggests 5,000 people don’t think there are too many food festivals in the Southeast.
“Do we have too many concerts?” Grdovic asks. “It’s like saying ‘Enough with your live music! I heard Coldplay, so I don’t need to hear the Rolling Stones.’ I don’t think we’re at that level of having too many festivals, because festivals are selling out.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
Provided Diners gather for Sunday Supper, a family-style dinner that’s part of Greenville’s Euphoria festival.×
Diners enjoy mouth-watering food and beverages under the moss-draped trees along the riverfront at Palmetto Bluff at the Southern Foodways Alliance's Potlikker Block Party at Music To Your Mouth, Bluffton, South Carolina×
Kevin Johnson from the Grocery serves Carolina Cup oysters to Becky Miller during the opening Night Party of the BB&T Wine + Food Festival at the South Carolina Aquarium Thursday in February.×
Last year, an estimated 1,000 patrons mingled at the Charleston Food + Wine Festival’s Opening Night Party. The festival is now celebrating its ninth edition and is drawing 23,000 people over its four days.×