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10 tips for working food fests and fairs

How to divide and conquer.
festival shadow setup

For the first Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York City, staff from southern Illinois’ two-unit 17th Street Bar & Grill brought countless cans of beans to feed 10,000 people. “Of course, the one thing we forgot to pack was a can opener,” says Amy Mills, vice president of marketing. “We learned very quickly to do more prep in advance.” 

Before thinking about execution, though, choosing an event that aligns with your business is critical. Especially since it means time away from the restaurant and added costs such as travel, overtime pay and extra food.

The block party is one that Mills considers a “can’t-miss,” but not due to sales. “It’s purely charity, and we go in the hole doing it,” she says. “We feel the benefit outweighs the cost to us in terms of exposure and goodwill.”

But that doesn’t mean indirect sales aren’t a factor. “We’re always looking to spotlight southern Illinois and to intrigue people to visit,” Mills says. “Plus, we have a very robust online shipping program, and we’re always looking to promote that.”

Andrew Gruel, founder and CEO of Huntington Beach, Calif.-based fast-casual Slapfish, sees festivals as a better ROI than traditional ads. “From the beginning, I flipped our marketing budget upside-down and went to 90 percent events-driven,” he says. “You’re looking at 500 to 1,000 people who have never been to your restaurant, so it’s an awesome opportunity to make a first impression.”

We asked these two festival veterans how they plan for success, and they offered these 10 tips. 

1. Remember: No free rides

We have never been to an event that did not cost us something,” says Mills. “Even if the organizers say they will pay your way, it doesn’t cover everything.” Your staff still are on your payroll, and often you have to ship supplies in advance. Talk to the organizers and find out what they will and will not reimburse.  

2. Check references

Gruel vets events like new employees. “You, as a vendor at an event, are judged by the success of the event,” he says. “Poor execution can negatively impact your brand.” He calls other participating restaurants to make sure they are like-minded and will  put forth the same level of commitment.

3. Think one explosive bite

Be conscious of portion size when attendees are eating 20 bites and drinking. “Be creative so you can really stick to three to four ingredients that are decadent or luxurious in one big bite, without wasting a lot of product,” Gruel says.  He primarily serves a petite version of the Slapfish lobster roll with warm butter.

4. If you have a sweet spot, don't move

The bigger the fest, the more difficult you are to find. 17th Street stopped participating in a large event after five years when its station was moved to a back area with less traffic. “Signs with our new location didn’t help, and there were more than 20 other vendors selling barbecue,” Mills says.  

5. Bring your A team

Taking your top staff puts your best foot forward with a new crowd, and it gives up-and-comers back home a chance to prove themselves, says Mills. “We always notice a difference in the staff after we take them on the road the first time. They get a taste of the bigger picture and understand more,” she says. 

6. Use an equipment checklist

Use an equipment checklist to pack your travel box ahead of time.

7. Don't forget

Don't forget zip ties, scissors, power strips, extension cords and hoses.

8. Mobile-pay

Consider mobile-pay options.

9. Social media

Promote social media to waiting customers.

10. Signage

Clean and dry signage before packing it up to avoid mold.


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