The Side Dish: The Economical Hit on Food & Wine Festivals

Robert, of, posted a bit of a rant and rave this weekend on the state of this year’s Bite of Oregon. Poor Robert was not happy about the event and it’s significant lack of vendors (and visitors). Over the years, the 26-year-old food festival has been noted to feature some of the best of Oregon’s food & wine offerings. However, this year, Robert was a bit dismayed by the gathering.

As I count the number of local food vendors in attendance, I realized that there were actually fewer restaurants serving up food at the 2009 Bite of Oregon than there were in the 1982 Bite of Seattle.

I didn’t attend – and I have to say that the small list of food vendors was certainly one of my hesitations. Taking place on the waterfront in the heart of Portland, the list of participating restaurants included few local eateries, and few eateries in general, with only 24 restaurants and food producers in attendance. Only 24 representing the whole state of Oregon? Where were the top notch new restaurants, or the newfangled food cart phenoms? Not at the Bite, according to Robert.

While I’m disappointed by Robert’s disappointment, I’m wondering if it’s really a shift in the bigger picture. During my trek home from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June, I overheard a number of my fellow airplane passengers discussing the Classic’s events. While everyone raved about the experience, most of the talk centered around the lack of food booths at the Grand Tastings. I had attended a number of Grand Tastings and had noticed the same thing – plenty of alcohol but very little food (resulting in many an intoxicated guest). “Where was the food?” one passenger inquired. “They should’ve just called it a Wine Classic instead,” another joked.

And today, Nation’s Restaurant News reports that after 27 years, the Taste of Charleston has been cancelled for 2009. While the West Virginia event organizers blame everything from a lack of sponsorship and “thousands of dollars in upfront costs” to a rivaling football game, I’m wondering if we’re seeing a pattern here. Sure, West Virginia isn’t the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, but I’m still curious if its a growing trend.

So what’s taking the food out of food and wine festivals? As a former catering business owner, I understand the time, effort, and cost of setting up a booth at a food event. Initial costs like booth rental can be difficult to pay in full up front, and the days of the event include long hours, extra staff, and food preparation. If you’re lucky, it will be a steady stream of visitors, with plenty of sales and little food waste.

But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, or the event isn’t publicized well enough, vendors can lose hundreds to thousands of dollars without steady visitor interest. For most food businesses, especially in these current economical times, it just isn’t financially feasible to run that risk. Ultimately, a lack of vendors results in higher booth costs, increased admission prices, and less sponsorship – which ultimately results in a greater lack of vendors for the next year, which results in less sponsorship, and so on.

Will food and wine festivals start to fall to the wayside as individuals and business continue to tighten purse strings? With big name sponsors, will bigger food & wine festivals remain unscathed by the changing economy?

~Jennifer Heigl

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