With 100s of restaurant festivals held each year across the nation, many must decide whether they're worth the time and cost to participate
In November 2006, 50 restaurants and their chefs will put their time, budget, and sanity on the line to participate in the third annual San Diego Food and Wine Festival, Southern California's largest culinary fête. While some participate to support the local community, many restaurants do it for the exposure; and others, like Jason Seibert, owner andof Café Cerise in San Diego, CA, do it to help bridge the gap between himself and his clientele.
"There is a huge missing link between so many chefs and their customers," says the outgoing Seibert, who balks at chefs who hide their face in the kitchen. "When you meet your customers face-to-face and they come to know you personally, you really leave a lasting impression on them," he says. "You can't pay for that kind of publicity."
With 100s of food festivals taking place in the United States each year, restaurants across the nation must decide whether it's worth the time and expense to attend. Equipment rental and/or purchase, transportation costs, health permits, site fees, and staffing are only some of the costs they can expect to incur.
"Rather than spend a lot of money on traditional advertising, we regularly attend food festivals," says Taco Borga owner of La Duni Latin Café in Highland Park, TX. A regular participant of Savor Dallas, Borga factors the cost of attending events into his annual advertising budget, rather than looking at it as an additional expense. Borga likes the fact that he can connect with his local restaurant colleagues who, after attending a number of food festivals together in Texas, recently formed the Latin Restaurant Alliance, which organizes events that benefit local Latin charities.
If the proceeds from a restaurant festival will benefit a particular cause, Borga finds that many people are often willing to donate their time, supplies, and equipment for free, which cuts down the expenditure on his end. "Not only do we help out our local community, but we also get publicity in the process," he says.
For some restaurants, however, the exposure just isn't worth the effort.
"I haven't seen a single benefit from participating in restaurant festivals," says Chris Ward, head chef at Mercury Grill in Dallas, TX. "Originally, I thought they would be good for publicity, but I haven't seen them affect the our bottom line whatsoever." Ward, who was short-listed last year to become the presidential White House chef, found the local palate too difficult to please. "I made himachi one year, and everyone responded with, 'Eww, raw fish!' No one ate it. I made duck breast another year and they were picky about that too. Everyone is so concerned with stuffing their face, but not the quality of the food. I just won't take it anymore."
For Peter Kasperski, owner of Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale, AZ, restaurant festivals are all about putting his town on the national culinary map.
"I'm on a crusade to get Scottsdale recognized as a major food destination," he says, convinced that his city is consistently overlooked when it comes to edible pleasures. When asked about his budget strategy, Kasperski says he prefers not to cut corners with the food itself. "The cost of the food isn't as important as the execution of the dish," he says. "Our main goal is to create a lasting impression."
So the question remains, is it worth it?
"At the end of the day, when you tally up all the costs, you never make a huge profit," admits Michelle Brandt-Lee, co-owner of Avalon Restaurant in West Chester, PA, one of the 60 restaurants that participate in the Chester Country Restaurant Festival each year. "It's such a tremendous amount of work and expense," she says. "But it's really nice to see your long-time customers and make some new ones. And you really feel like you're part of the community."
"You can't expect to benefit from participating in just one event," adds Taco Borga. "It's like radio - you have to make numerous appearances in order to get everyone's attention. It's not immediate. It's not overnight. You just have to keep going and going to get yourself noticed."