Charleston Wine + Food Festival tries to find new footing on eve of 10th anniversary

Investors who made major contributions toward previous years of the Wine + Food Festival are baffled by the lack of information they are receiving about the upcoming event, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

In the five months since the 2014 Charleston Wine + Food Festival closed out with a raucous party at The Alley that culminated in hundreds of swaying ticket holders joining the chorus of Pharrell's "Happy," the festival has nearly drained its cash reserves and replaced every staff member but one.

The new regime has assumed leadership of a festival that's been celebrated for reshaping the city's food-and-beverage landscape and generating as much as $10 million in spending over the course of an otherwise quiet week in March. It's on the cusp of its 10th anniversary, a milestone which could have called for reminiscing and deserved back-patting.

Instead, a staff of newcomers is now tasked with not only balancing the budget of a financially-precarious event, but earning the trust of a local culinary community whose mood has shifted from ebullient to unsure.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the circumstances, restaurateurs and chefs are anxiously anticipating an upcoming ticket launch party that functions as a kind of opening day for the festival's next installment, March 4-8. Insiders say they'll monitor the party's design, execution and attendance for clues to the festival's future.

"I'm sure there are some out there who liked it the way it was," said Red Drum's Ben Berryhill, a longtime participant and one of many local chefs rooting for the festival's continued success. "I liked it the way it was too. But what are you going to do? Stop supporting the festival? The festival was instrumental in taking Charleston from a B-market food city to an A-market food city."

The Wine + Food Festival is credited with harnessing the culinary tourism trend just as it was emerging across the country about a decade ago. Like fine art enthusiasts who make the pilgrimage to Charleston each year for Spoleto Festival USA, food lovers now travel from as far away as Australia to experience Charleston's cuisine at the annual event.

Over the past decade, the Wine + Food Festival has drawn tens of thousands of tourists to Charleston each year, generated more than $31 million in overall economic impact and played a critical role in establishing the city as a culinary capital and its resident chefs as perennial James Beard Award nominees.

What the festival has never done, though, is weathered a leadership change.

After founder Angel Postell stepped down as director in 2013, it took eight months for the board to select Gillian Zettler, former director of Greenville's food festival, Euphoria Greenville, as her successor. Because of the timing of her hire, Zettler stood by while staffers and then-board chairman Rick Jerue, serving in the role of interim director, staged the 2014 festival. Her tenure started immediately after the event, instigating the gradual wave of resignations that invariably accompany administrative shifts.

Festival board member Steve Palmer, who is managing partner of the Indigo Road Restaurant Group, said he's well aware of the whispered doubts and concerns that have ensued.

"Is it out there? Of course, I mean almost the entire staff left," he said. "I know that when the turnover started occurring, the Mickey Baksts and Mike Latas and Kevin Johnsons all said the same thing, and that was 'we just need to support the festival.' Because it's bigger than me, it's bigger than Gillian, it's about what it does for the community."

It's not unusual for a nonprofit festival to hit a rough patch when its founder departs. After Gian Carlo Menotti, the founder of Spoleto Festival USA, left the Charleston-based arts festival in 1993, many of its sponsors and key staff members followed suit. It took several years until the board of directors could recover from the rift and the resulting deficit of about $1 million.

However, Zettler insists she hasn't encountered any skepticism about the festival's future.

"I'm dealing with sponsors and friends and venue managers and I'm telling you, people we're going to be doing business with are excited," she said.

Meanwhile, an on-edge community of past partners spent much of the summer trying to parse the meaning of unreturned phone calls and the hiring of a Greenville consultant to handle event logistics.

The festival board said that the insurgent worries were calmed once Zettler last month met with "all the chefs in town" for a roundtable discussion about what they envisioned for the 2015 festival.

"I think the meeting with chefs solved all of that," Palmer said. "I think Gillian listened."

In reality, in a city with more than 100 downtown restaurants only about eight chefs were able to attend the meeting at The Grocery. At least one restaurant group was inadvertently left off the guest list.

"It was like, 'Here you go, here's the new team, and this is the new leader,' and we told her what we like, what we didn't like and she can listen to it or not listen to it," Nico Romo of Fish, who has participated in the festival since its inception, said. "We did the same thing with Angel in the first years."

According to Palmer, many of the chefs were primarily concerned with a value equation they feared was tilted in the festival's favor. "They said, 'This is costing me thousands of dollars,'" Palmer said, referring to the guest chef dinners that require host restaurants to close to the general public, giving up a night's worth of revenue.

Festival staffers say they're adjusting the chef experience this year by creating more opportunities for chefs to directly interact with guests. But they've also revised expectations of sponsors, some of whom they say have grown accustomed to getting more than they give.

"We went in and renegotiated, and a lot of sponsors agreed that they were getting more value than they were bringing to the table. Many of them stepped up and met us there, and that's wonderful," spokeswoman Cathryn Zommer said. "But there were also sponsors that we weren't able to meet there."

Zommer refused to reveal what the festival is promising sponsors who are helping to close the cash gap.

During the past two years, ticket sales have contributed to 60 percent of the festival's annual revenue. Although the festival hasn't yet prepared a budget for the current fiscal year, Zettler said her intention is to start shifting more of the financial burden to major donors, who pay $2,500 per person for early ticket access and year-round festival concierge service, and corporate sponsors.

The 2015 sponsorship roster is still under development, but Bottles Beverage Superstore and Summers Corner, a MeadWestvaco housing development near Summerville, are new additions to the list. The festival is ahead on sponsorship dollars compared with this time last year, board chairman Johnny Wallace said. "That's the key thing," he said, pointing out how much depressed ticket sales have hurt the festival's bottom line.

Because one day of the 2014 festival was hit with heavy rain, Wallace said, sales of tickets to the Culinary Village - the festival's biggest event, measured by attendance - dropped $100,000 from the previous year. "And the year before was bad too," he said.

The festival lost nearly $22,000 in 2012 and about $16,000 in 2013, according to reports the nonprofit filed with the IRS. This year, the finance committee said the festival lost $94,000 - its highest deficit yet.

"We're doing everything we can to contain our costs," Wallace said, alluding to plans to cut back on mailings and reuse rental equipment.

This year's ticket profits also took a hit from the decision not to reprise a pricey black-tie event that debuted in 2006 with top-tier celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio, Paul Kahan and Norman Van Aken cooking; that supper sold for $500 a person. By 2013, the ticket price had reached $1,000 a plate.

Despite eliminating the costliest event on its schedule, the festival still is considered unaffordable by many Charlestonians. Their perspective is shaped largely by the entry fee for the Culinary Village, which occupies most of Marion Square for the festival's duration. ?Five years ago, a three-hour pass sold for $45. This year, a Culinary Village ticket was priced at $85, with a $15 Sunday discount available to locals. Zommer said the ticket price is projected to remain the same in 2015.

The figure puts Charleston Wine + Food's main tent smack in the middle of the festival pack, dollarwise. Although it's impossible to precisely compare one event to another, tent access is $60 at Feast Portland; $75 at Euphoria in Greenville; $100 at Atlanta Food & Wine and $150 at Music City Food + Wine.

"The numbers work," said Zettler, who's vowing to keep prices steady while selling fewer tickets to fewer events. Zettler shuns the word "exclusive," but emphasizes that she's trying to cultivate a sense of intimacy that's been absent from recent festivals. According to this year's visitor survey, conducted by the College of Charleston, 22 percent of people polled named crowds as the thing they liked least about the festival.

Events at which ticket holders will have a better shot at bumping into chefs and winemakers include a new golf tournament, priced at $500, and the popular Pinot Envy tasting, now capped at 300 instead of 500 people.

Beyond those events, though, it's unclear just what's on the 2015 schedule, which apparently runs for four days instead of the usual three. The silence coming from festival headquarters has surprised certain stakeholders, such as major donors, who in previous years glimpsed the schedule at least a month before it was released to the general public, and aroused the curiosity of some longtime festival partners eager to know how the 10th anniversary will be observed.

Mostly, though, past participants who have talked to Zettler say they're confident the staff will generate an imaginative schedule full of events designed to stimulate the easygoing camaraderie that's long been a hallmark of festival after-parties. Their apprehensions center on the challenges posed by turning ideas into events with a sufficient number of glasses, signs and garbage pickup.

"I feel like with Gillian, it's going to take her some time to get her legs under her," Berryhill said. "It's a big project. It's just like opening a restaurant: The first year is the hardest year. I've seen a lot of restaurants that didn't get it right out of the gate."

Berryhill, who's so diplomatic that he refers to his restaurant as the local culinary scene's "Switzerland," added, "There will be a target on Gillian and her crew, but what's the point? We're trying to showcase Charleston. At the end of the day, they're going to pull it off. Different is not better or worse. Different is just different."