food festival

On the fence about participating in a food festival? Here’s a stat that might tip the scales: After trying food from a new restaurant or brewery, 79 percent of food festival attendees say they will plan a visit to the brick-and-mortar itself.

That’s the result Kate Levenstien, CEO of food fest host Cannonball Productions, has found through organizing large-scale food and drink festivals in more than a dozen cities across the country. Events like the Bacon and Beer Classic, Taco Takeover and Whiskey Feast each bring in 4,000 to 10,000 guests eager to sample dishes from anywhere from 15 to 40 restaurants.

“Our events are full of eager foodies who love to engage with the restaurants,” Levenstien says, noting that an event app helps them keep track of all the food they’ve tried that day.

That helps them seek out favorite dishes outside of the festival, at restaurants like F. Ottomanelli Burgers & Belgian Fries in Queens. Owner Frank Ottomanelli attends 10 to 15 events a year.

“There are benefits from a marketing standpoint,” Ottomanelli says. “It’s an opportunity to get out there, interact with people, let people try our products. You meet all types of people. You never know who you’re going to come across.”

Interested, but don’t know where to start? Levenstien and Ottomanelli can help.

Come prepared

“Two common challenges holding first-time participants back is a fear of the unknown and limited staff,” says Levenstien, noting that many restaurants are short-staffed on Saturdays, when most festivals occur. “Our biggest tip is to come prepared, read the emails and logistical information we send to you, be open, and most importantly, have fun.”

Cannonball Productions assigns each restaurant a 10-by-10-foot booth complete with tables, linens and signage. Restaurants end up preparing anywhere from 500 to 5,000 samples, depending on the size of the event.

Ottomanelli says good record keeping is key to determining how much food to serve. For an event of 10,000 guests, he might prepare 7,000, but he cautions other restaurateurs to not over-project.

“Not every single person is going to try your food. There will be vegetarians there, there will be people who don’t like your particular food,” he says. “So just average out the high end and low end of what you think you might need so you don’t get stuck with product.”

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When all is said and done, to obtain even just one of the proper licenses and permits can cost as much as 10,000 dollars. Luckily, the only resource you’ll need to open your doors with the right licenses and permits is here.

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Network with other vendors

Levenstien says that vendors are given an hourlong break between sessions to relax, regroup and connect with other restaurateurs. Cannonball Productions also offers a vendor-exclusive Hospitality Lounge and other events to help facilitate.

“We grow our community with every new event we produce, and we encourage all of our vendors to interact and connect offline,” Levenstien says. “We host onsite activations and an educational speaking series.”

79 percent of food festival attendees say they will plan a visit to the brick-and-mortar itself.

Have fun

Levenstien says one of her favorite vendors has been Druthers, a restaurant and brewery in Saratoga, New York. While the New York Bacon and Beer Classic is usually reserved for restaurants from the five boroughs, Druther’s staff drove three hours to participate and work for two full days.

“They designed custom T-shirts, which they wore at their booth, and they won Best Dish two years in a row,” Levenstien remembers, for a bacon banh mi with carrot and cucumber slaw in 2016, and a bacon taco al pastor with housemade “cool ranch” corn tortillas in 2017. “They put so much effort and energy into their booth and dish, and get so much value out of the event.”

Accolades and marketing benefits aside, Ottomanelli says the main reason he enjoys participating in food festivals is that he can give back to the community by serving them great dishes.

“It’s a nice opportunity to give back to the community and be out there and show off your product,” he says, noting that he recently served at an event honoring members of the police and fire departments who died on 9/11.

“I learned from my father early on that you always give back to the community any way you can,” he says. “Don’t worry about getting recognition or anything like that because you want to do whatever it takes to help your community.”

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Meghan is an award-winning journalist and content marketing manager who lives to tell stories. Her favorites include highlighting all things restaurants, from front-of-house hospitality to back-of-house grit. When she's not writing about them, you can find her eating her way through Providence and Boston searching for inspiration with a rye Old Fashioned in hand.