There’s hundreds of food and wine events to get your restaurant involved in. But which should you choose? Sharon Aris investigates.
Pick a weekend, any weekend, and there’s a food and wine festival wanting your involvement. From giant expos to tiny regionals, the foodie business is popular and big. But while plenty of people tout for a piece of your restaurant’s action at their event, there’s a big difference between pitching your tent in a field and actually driving business into your restaurant.
As a founder of the annual Noosa Food and Wine Festival, Jim Berardo has spent considerable time thinking through exactly how the festival works for his business.
For a start, he says, “attracting people to the area is a priority here in Noosa. We have more restaurants per capita than any other region. And good quality ones too. There are 300 eateries in the Noosa metropolitan area alone. We always had a goal in mind—it was to be a national festival, not just a Queensland or Noosa one”. Begining seven years ago, last year the festival was recognised as one of the best food experiences in the country in The Australian’s Travel and Tourism Awards and this year it attracted 20,000 people along with 150 chefs, wine merchants and media.
“It’s exactly the right size now,” says Berardo. “The character of the festival is personal and intimate. The biggest events were 200-300 for the cooking demonstrations, but everything else is elbow to elbow. That’s the uniqueness.” In his own restaurant Berardo offers ‘the Great Australian degustation’—featuring eight guest chefs a night in his kitchen. “85 per cent of the audience were southerners,” he notes with satisfaction.
Just as important is what the festival isn’t. “We were never going to compete with masterclasses like in a big city venue. It’s all out in marquees or fields or boats. Here chefs get to meet the punters. It’s a hats-off day for them. Noosa itself is like that,” says Berardo.
“It starts with the punters, the audience. The kind that will be there. That should drive everything. Make sure you align your brand properly with the people. The worst thing is to take the wrong product to the wrong audience—like doing a six-dollar plate somewhere that people will complain if the plate isn’t full.
“Unfortunately many proposed food and wine festivals turn out to be money making activities by people not in the business. They bring in sushi made a week ago and a sausage sizzle. You don’t want to be involved in something like that. It’s got to be about great food and wine.”
D’Arry’s Verandah, situated in the D’arenberg Winery in Maclaren Vale in SA, doesn’t have the luxury to choose whether or not to be involved in the local Sea and Vines festival—they’re contractually obliged to do so. “It’s not a big money spinner for us,” admits Nigel Rich, co-head chef and restaurant manager. “It’s a marketing exercise.” But he adds, “what it does do is bring people into the region who wouldn’t normally come.” So he and his partners work to showcase what they do well within the festival context.
While they operate the coffee stations and fast food marquees for the 160 coaches that came through on the most recent festival weekend—providing 5000-6000 covers, 500kg of chips and 1200 serves of coffee—they also worked to integrate the fine dining the restaurant typically offers in the festival too. On the Monday, the festival’s quietest day, they offered a special degustation event—“normally our core business”—that had to be pre-booked. This year they also conducted an experiment, putting one of their signature dishes, a prawn and blue swimmer crab ravioli, out into the main festival. While most food was plated at $10-$15 a serve, they priced it accordingly at $25, and prepared 100 serves for the entire weekend.
By half-way through the first day, all were gone. It was very good news. “People are prepared to pay for good food,” observes Rich, who says they’ll do it again next year, with probably double the number of serves. He hopes others follow suit, “I hope more people look to provide that quality rather than volume, which is what the festival is meant to be about.”
In Adelaide, Beyond India restaurateur Robby Gupta has used festivals to open up significant new business opportunities and turn around people’s expectations of food at big events. Gupta pitched a stall at his first food festival ten years ago not long after he opened. Happily, the local O’Connell Street festival led a lot of business back to his restaurant. But while he continued to participate it wasn’t until last year he had the chance to test a theory: there weren’t just marketing opportunities at food events, but also good outright profits.
With 11 chefs and two restaurants, Gupta knew he could produce a lot of food, so he spent the year going to everything he could, talking his way into the Adelaide Oval for the cricket tests, into the tennis, to music festivals, carols by candelight and arts events.
“In South Australia not many good quality restaurants do outdoor events,” he says. “The people who just do outdoor events are fast food people. I’m a cricket fanatic. I wanted our food there for a long time. When we got there people said ‘we have been waiting for good quality restaurant food for years’. The clientele that goes to test matches are used to our type of food.” Then he crunched the numbers. “I had a forty per cent failure rate,” he says. But thanks to exact costings he knew where and why those failures were occurring. “The biggest cost for us was setting up and dismantling the stall. Whether we made $2,000 or $20,000, the setting up and dismantling costs are the same.” Then there were the other big upfronts like site hire, electricity and sullage.
Now, having done his feasibility study, Gupta is working on having his own caravan where everything is set up, so bumping can take one to two hours rather than the 50 or 60 that went into a marquee. He’s also choosing his events carefully, eliminating venues that demand high site fees or oversupply with other stalls.
“The way you make money at events is to do the turnover as quickly as possible,” he says. “People won’t wait for 45 minutes for food. We have two cash registers, two bain maries, everything is prepared. We have signage so people think of what they want to order before they come to pay so they’re at the registers only 15 to 30 seconds.” He also prices accordingly—while a main could go for $20 in a restaurant, at outdoor events nothing’s more than $10. “What you make your money on is volume.”