There is no shortage of music festivals in America—and plenty of people eager to attend (32 million, to be exact, according to Billboard).
With hundreds of festivals in existence—and more coming out all the time—many organizers are turning to food programming to make their events stand out. That means turning away from large-scale catering companies, and toward a curated selection of restaurants serving festival-friendly versions of their food. Just take a look at Panorama, the newcomer New York festival that brought in the likes of award-winning spots like Khe-Yo and Nix (Eater was brought in to select food partners). Or Lollapalooza, whose entire food line-up (“Chow Town”) was curated by chef Graham Elliott. Food—and good food, at that—is becoming an essential part of the festival experience.
“It’s a way to differentiate yourself and make yourself feel local,” says Andrew Steinthal, co-founder of the Infatuation, which curated the food lineup for Governors Ball in New York this year (Steinthal also used to work in the music business). “So many of these festivals have similar line-ups, so food and restaurants can be a deal-breaking area.”
Six years ago, he says, this was not the case. “You would go to a festival and there were maybe a few cool local vendors but otherwise it was like you were at a carnival,” he says. “This year we saw so much activity [at Governors Ball] around the food line-up—it’s like a whole other dynamic being brought into the mix.”
But while the idea of participating in a music festival can be an exciting prospect for publicity and extra revenue, there are a lot of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to take part — and ways to maximize your festival experience if you choose to get involved. We spoke to the folks in charge of the food as well as a number of restaurant vendors from major music festivals. Here are their tips.
Free publicity: By participating in a festival, you’re riding the wave of the rest of the event’s publicity and marketing strategy. Not only will your restaurant be featured on the event website, but also in press releases and subsequent press coverage and potential promotions…all without having to invest too many PR resources of your own.
Exposure to a new audience: “At most music festivals there is a large and very diverse crowd,” says Tim Love, who is the official chef of Austin City Limits. “Not only do you get huge exposure of your brand but you also have the chance to serve these people and prove your wealth to new guests. Not to mention that if you perform well, it can be a very lucrative endeavor.”
Connecting with customers: Festivals are a chance to personally build relationships with your customers—make friends, talk about what you do, be social with locals and tourists alike! When your customers feel a connection, they’re likely to stop by your place after the event.
Building community among staffers (and other restaurants): “It’s fun for us to get our staff outside, and Panorama did a great job of curating good restaurant partners,” says Basu Ratnam, owner of the fast-casual Indian spot, Inday, in New York. “Being in a community like that where we got to meet new people and trade secrets was fun, and a great opportunity for our staff to get out of our store and be a part of the festival.”
The toll on restaurant operations and staff: “You’re preparing food for thousands and thousands of people a day,” says Steinthal. “That’s a completely different animal than running your restaurant. It’s hard to know in your first year what kind of business you will do—how much food to order, how many servings to prepare for—but these are such important things.”
Long, hot days: Be prepared for a “three-day nonstop grind,” says Steinthal. Plus, Love adds that “it’s usually very hot during festival season, and working for long hours can prove very challenging. Once you set up you must be able to perform at a very high level, especially when the demand is there.”
The weekend factor: Music festivals typically happen over a weekend—the most lucrative time of a week for a restaurant. So by participating, especially if you are a smaller restaurant, be prepared to sacrifice in those prime sales times.
Losing Money: “For first timers, you’re going to lose money,” says Jake Dell, owner of the iconic Katz’s Delicatessen, which teamed up with Brooklyn’s Loosie’s Kitchen at the Panorama Festival this year. “Predicting how much to prepare is hard and somewhat unrealistic.”
9 Tips for Festival Success
1. Talk to other restaurants: “Find out what they did wrong the first time, and make sure you have a checklist to know all the little things you are going to need,” says Steinthal. “You can’t take that for granted—you’re popping up an entire kitchen.”
2. Create an exclusive festival dish…: Customers love one-time-only specials that they can’t get anywhere else. An added bonus if the dish photographs well for Instagram!
3. …But make sure it’s easy to execute: Love says, “The key to being successful at a festival is to create a very buzz-worthy dish and be able to serve it extremely fast while maintaining quality. While burgers seem to be an obvious choice, it is very hard to serve 1,000 fresh, tasty burgers in an hour with only a 10×20 foot space. However, serving 1,000 really unique sausages in an hour is much more easily executed. It’s all about how many you can serve in an hour!”
4. Make your booth stand out: “The Jeepney guys last year brought a Drake head and hung it on their booth,” Steinthal recalls from Gov Ball. “People kept taking pictures in front of the Drake face. If you can think about ways like that to stand out a bit and even create something people want to take a photo of, that’s important.”
5. Have a plan B: “If the weather turns, know what you are going to do with your extra food,” Steinthal says. “Maybe you can deliver it to your other restaurant, or a friendly restaurant. You just don’t want to be stuck with all this food you can’t use.”
6. Keep it simple: Remember that most festival-goers are not the kind of people that care about complex flavor layering or plating—they just want something to tide them over. “Make your dish unique but not overly fussy or temperamental in terms of preparation and execution,” Ratnam says.
7. Choose your staffers wisely: “It’s a very different team that operates well in a restaurant than a festival,” Ratnam says. “You might have an employee that works well in the restaurant and is good at following directions but that same person in a festival setting has to be a seller and a brand ambassador and someone who can really go after customers. Thinking about that and how you staff your booth is important.”
8. Hustle for VIPs: Come up with creative ways to get your food in the hands of VIPs, especially festival talent. “You get a snap from Major Lazer—you just can’t put a price on that,” says Steinthal. “But you have got to hustle to get that.”
9. Don’t forget the basics of festival going: “Wear comfortable shoes and hydrate!” says Chris Turner, chef of Kamehachi in Chicago, which participated in Lollapalooza this year.