Event horizon

Events like the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival are a lot of work—but the pay-off is great exposure.

Events like the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival are a lot of work—but the pay-off is great exposure.

Community food events can boost the public profile of your restaurant, but it can be disastrous if you don’t plan for throngs of people. By Andrew Mckenzie

Most restaurateurs would like their restaurant associated with a picnic atmosphere with memorable food and a glass of chardonnay. But how do they address the possibilities of public drunkenness or poor sanitation?

When it comes to co-operative restaurant marketing through fine food events, there is a vast array of options, but any restaurateur or caterer should think carefully before they pack up the kitchen and move to the beach for the day.

Community events to which restaurants and caterers are invited—for a fee—to set up a stall and sell a sample of their wares range from the über-slick professionalism of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Month and the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, to the community charm of Manly Food & Wine Festival in Sydney or A La Carte on the Beach at Coolangatta.

They can be very differently organised, ranging from the mass media advertising model of SMH Good Food Month, to small co-ops organised by restaurants and local municipal councils to promote local businesses.

The experiences of restaurateurs also differ vastly, ranging from something that establishes an annual tradition to a dreadful waste of time, effort and money that keeps a restaurant at home.

Consultant Ken Burgin of Profitable Hospitality says such events can be a great opportunity to raise awareness of your restaurant, but you shouldn’t underestimate how disruptive they can be to your business, or the pitfalls that can result in costly mistakes.

“Some events are fantastic, and I participated with my café in the Glebe Street Fair in Sydney for many years, mostly because it was on the street in front of our business,” he says. “We’d see a definite lift in customers following it, and there were always ensuing comments from people about how they didn’t know we were here.

“But organisation is everything, and it is worth talking to previous participants to get the lie of the land. For example, I visited The Rocks Aroma Festival a few years ago, and because inadequate power was provided for the coffee machines they went very slowly. My main memories are of queues and not great food,” says Burgin.

In 2006, the Manly Food & Wine Festival, which has been held for 21 years along the Corso in front of the famous Sydney beach, also drew criticism. The festival is largely organised by Manly Council, and according to its 2006 report, a poor mix of food and wine stalls turned it into a massive booze-up. Wine stalls outnumbered the food stalls by two-to-one, local restaurants were half empty, and the family atmosphere of the event quickly disappeared. By all accounts this year’s festival was far more successful, with organisers learning from their mistakes and making food more prominent.

Maria Espinoza, proprietor of La Paella at Surfers Paradise in Queensland, knows better than most what can go right and wrong with such events, as she takes part in up to 10 each year, travelling as far afield as Byron Bay and Brisbane.

This year, La Paella will have a food stall at events ranging from A La Carte on the Beach and the Gold Coast Indy Festival, to the Blues Festival in Byron Bay and Splendour In The Grass.

In September, for the first time, La Paella hosted its own event at the beach in Coolangatta, called One World United, with about 20 restaurant stalls and a small concert featuring singer Marcia Hines.

“All of the events in which we participate help promote our restaurant rather than make money for us, but we don’t lose any money at a good event,” she says.

“I’ve seen everything that can go wrong at such an event, but the worst thing is a lack of people due to poor promotion. Advertising and promotion is very important in the lead-up, otherwise nobody turns up.”

Espinoza says success comes down to proper organisation, and this includes everything from the appropriate security to getting the right mix of food stalls. “There shouldn’t be too many of the same type of cuisine, and restaurateurs should try to negotiate exclusivity for their specialty if possible,” she says. “There’s nothing worse than five Thai food stalls and nothing else.”

At the other extreme, organisers can impose harsh conditions on participants in relation to prices and portions. For example, both the Sydney Good Food Month and Melbourne Food & Wine Festival promote discount lunch menus—usually about $30 for a two-course meal with wine—and although this can be a great way to promote trial offers, it can also be a huge way to lose money.

Burgin says whether it is at an outdoor event, or part of a trial offer, it’s imperative your menu showcases your restaurant’s attributes within a budget.

“At an away event, you should remember the theatre of food,” he says. “Let people see the skill of the preparation and freshness of produce and they will be interested. Trial offers might include a variation of a signature dish.”

Burgin says many restaurants fail to leverage the marketing opportunity adequately, especially at the smaller community food and wine events. “It can be a simple matter of collecting names and emails for your database, promoting your website, or even a discount voucher to encourage people to move from the trial to visiting your restaurant,” he explains.

At events, La Paella’s stall is typically visited by 400 to 800 people a day, and Espinoza says they work hard to get as many as possible to visit the restaurant in Surfers Paradise. This includes giving away vouchers with every sale, about 10 per cent of which will later be redeemed at the restaurant. This allows her to track the success of any event and future potential interest.

A La Carte on the Beach held in Coolangatta and A La Carte in the Park held at Anzac Park, Broadwater, are two fine food events that La Paella has been involved in since their inception. Both events offer a sample of some of the region’s best food and wine talents at a value price of between $3 and $8 per plate.

Glen Day, proprietor of the Aztec, Montezuma’s and Pancakes in Paradise restaurants on the Gold Coast, has participated in A La Carte in the Park since about 20 years ago. “Even for well-organised and attended events such as this one, we only break even. It’s more about getting people to the restaurants,” he says.

“You shouldn’t underestimate how much work is required. You will spend a day in preparation, a day at the event and a day packing everything up, if you’re efficient.”

Even so, Day says he does get value for effort from A La Carte in the Park. His restaurants record an increased patronage, proving that the 20,000 to 30,000 attendees are the right audience for his business.

Massive food and wine events, however, might require a different approach. The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, held each year in March, bills itself as the world’s largest food and wine festival and includes a vast array of local and high-profile events. These range from 10 main events, from The World’s Longest Lunch—a lunch of fine wine and cuisine for 1,500 at the Telstra Dome—to more than 140 associated one-off events by restaurants.

Melbourne Food & Wine Festival producer Ute Biefang says the main organisers control the core of high-profile events, while most smaller, local-level events are quality controlled to ensure they fit with the overall program. “We evaluate if there is a fit with the overall goals of the festival and if it can be promoted in our brochure that is distributed in The Age,” Biefang says.

An example of one such event last year was Greeks vs The Rest, at which food critics and chefs entertained guests with a debate about the influence of Greek cooking on world cuisine, while they sampled the restaurants’ wares.

Burgin says participants should be careful to understand the restrictions created by organisers—such as a $30 two-course lunch menu—and be prepared to work around them.

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