Now that we’ve had a couple days for the dust to settle — literally — on the inaugural Austin Food & Wine Festival, I’ve gathered a lot of feedback from those who sprang for either the $250 or $850 passes and have received curious questions from those who opted to “sit this one out” and see if this festival really could be a success. So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly glowing, but it hasn’t been without its fair share of “constructive criticism.”
I spent the weekend looking for the good (the food and wine), the bad (the sun-soaked lines), and the ugly (the dust). I wore as objective of an observation cap as I could at both the day time events at Auditorium Shores and the VIP evening events at Republic Square Park, which wasn’t easy considering there was delicious food and wine available at almost every turn.
While there were a few twinges of disappointment — lulls of activity between seminars, elbow jabs during the peak of the Grand Tasting hours, and the perpetual cloud of dust that hovered throughout the park like something out of the sand planet of Star Wars’ Tattooine — I have to say the overall festival was a pretty great success.
“Our style of proving and creating an event is to do as much research as possible on other similar events. We take the good components and skip the bad components, and hopefully catch all the things we did wrong in the first year so that every year following is an even better success.” - Charlie Jones, C3 Presents
My series of initial impressions go something like this:
- Amazing Friday night kick off party with a breezy sunset over Republic Square park; fantastic food from some of our top Texas chefs, and laid back tunes from Lucinda Williams.
- Saturday morning grilling with Tim Love may have been the best hands-on demo I’ve ever seen. And with a little accompaniment of tequila and white wine to start the day, it couldn’t possibly have gone wrong.
- The lines at each seminar tent were long and a little unruly with two different lines for VIP pass holders (guaranteed seats) and Weekender pass holders (doubtful to get a seat, standing room only).
- Fun and informative wine seminars from Ray Isle and Anthony Giglio.
- The Saturday Rock Your Taco event was a smash with an endless supply of diverse and quirky tacos (despite long lines), a steady flow of passed drinks and a fantastic performance from the funky Mayor Hawthorne band.
But honestly, it’s not just about what I thought. As a food writer who generally geeks out over stuff like this, what’s more important is how other attendees felt. (For the record, I did receive a Press Pass, which allowed me access to all of the events. I gave my purchased $250 pass to a family member to enjoy.) I did a little milling around Sunday afternoon soliciting feedback from both VIP and Weekender pass holders and here is some of the feedback I received.
- Hanging with celebrity chefs. “I’m a foodie and it was great to see these chefs from other parts of the country,” says Lynne Winterton, a VIP Pass holder.
- Friday and Saturday Night Events. “The events Friday and Saturday night were amazing and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss those. It made the whole weekend,” says Tom Winterton, a VIP pass holder.
- Weekender Passes Were Great for What you Got. “It was totally worth the Weekender pass just to get a chance to listen to some of the demonstrations and see what a lot of these chefs are really like,” says Nicole Ball. “We didn’t really get a seat at any of them, but we could still hear and see everything just fine.”
- The Grand Tastings Were Grand. “It was a little crammed and there were some elbows being thrown, but you could still talk to the exhibitors and taste as much as you wanted,” says Carla Williams, a Weekender pass holder. “Plus, Tim Love poured me a Stella and that was pretty cool.”
- The lines were long, hot, and deflating for Weekender pass holders who quickly sized up that they wouldn’t get a seat against equally long lines of VIP pass holders. “It would have been great to know how many VIP seats were already reserved because then we would be able to tell if we would get a seat or not,” says William Ball, a Weekender pass holder. “Once we found out we wouldn’t get in to one tent, it was too late to try to stand in line for another tent.”
- The dead time between seminars and the Grand Tastings made the entire venue space seem awkward and dead at times. One guest commented that she arrived at the festival a little late for a seminar time slot. “I basically waited around sipping a coffee trying to figure out what else to do,” says Hannah Norman, a Weekender pass holder. Another guest, who preferred not to be named, left the festival and went to Hooter’s down the street for a beer and wings with her husband until the next event started.
The VIP wasn’t VIP enough. Some VIP ticket holders didn’t feel the $600 difference in pass prices were worth it based on what little perks they received. “It wasn’t anything really special during the day. The Friday and Saturday night events were amazing, and it was great to have priority to get a seat in demonstrations, but we were really just standing around in line or in between events just like everybody else,” says Lynne Winterton.
- The dust. It was everywhere. “The venue was tough because there was grit on literally everything,” says Tom Winterton.
- Add live music during the day. “They should have live music playing in between the scheduled events, as you’re waiting in the lines for the next event,” says Carla Williams. “I would definitely be an Austin thing to have live music.”
- Make the Grand Tastings bigger, and spread in one time block throughout the day so people can come and go. “The Grand Tastings were insane, and hot and crowded,” says Kelly King who stayed 20 minutes on Saturday’s first Grand Tasting before leaving with her two friends and not returning for the remainder of the weekend.
- VIP pass holders should not have to wait in line. Many VIP pass holders complained that waiting in the hot sun for a seat wasn’t VIP treatment. “I paid for it, why can’t I sit in my reserved seat until the session starts,” says one VIP pass holder who preferred not to be named.
- More Tim Love! Almost everyone I spoke to LOVED how energetic and informative the Tim Love grilling session was and wanted a lot more of that in future festivals.
- More food! For a food and wine festival, many people I spoke to said it seemed a little light on food. The Grand Tasting had significantly more to drink than to eat and the seminar tents had plenty to sip on for the wine and spirits tastings, but little to nibble on for the cooking demonstrations — Tim love steak grilling excluded. Though there were a few food trailers on site, most attendees felt the amount of many they spent on their pass should prevent them from having to shell out more money for food at the festival. One attendee, @jordanbreal, commented on Twitter, “1st thought upon leaving the @austinfoodwine festival: Can't wait to wash my dusty feet & go get something to eat!”
And while everyone seemed to have one or two words of advice for next year, the two most prevalent comments I received across the board were: “I would definitely come back next year,” and “Well, it was their first year, so you can’t be too hard on them.”
Some people may disagree. After all, this isn’t C3 Presents’ first rodeo. If this big shot events company has the secret formula to success for such grand scale music festivals as the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Lallapalooza, then should we really give them a break for not having every “i” dotted and “t” crossed for their first go at the Austin Food & Wine Festival?
Yes. And here’s why. Because music festival goers are different than food festival goers. And after a long, honest conversation with C3 Co-founding Partner Charlie Jones, the only real way to figure that out was to experience it first hand.
"Next year, the city parks department and several event producers in the area have agreed to help with the refurbishing of [Auditorium Shores], whether financially or through consulting. It will be in very good condition next year and that will make a huge difference in the overall experience our patrons will have.”
“Our style of proving and creating an event is to do as much research as possible on other similar events. We take the good components and skip the bad components, and hopefully catch all the things we did wrong in the first year so that every year following is an even better success,” says Jones.
When asked if he was surprised by the amount of dead time and ghost-town-esque atmosphere the event had at times, Jones had to give a little background to put things in context.
“My philosophy to programming was similar to when we do music festivals. We want a whole lot of people moving around at the same time and with the opportunity to go see chefs in one tent for a few minutes and then move on to another tent if they wanted to, just like they do with our music events,” says Jones.
“But what we found was that once people committed to going to watch a chef, they stayed there. So during seminars, there was no one walking around and it looked like a barren desert. We took that idea from the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. It works there because it’s in the middle of this small town and in between the seminars and the Grand Tasting, you can walk around town. At this venue in Austin, you couldn’t really do that. We’re working on fixing that for next year. We want to elevate that space that Tim Love used for the grilling demo to be like a little stadium. We’ll program it for more activity in the future.”
Beyond the lulls in activity, the lines, and overcrowded Grand Tastings were also a problem for Jones. “We might need to communicate the concept of scheduling for some of the demonstrations,” says Jones regarding some of the cooking demos that had long lines disappointed Weekender pass holders who were ebbed out by VIP pass holders who had “pre-registered” for the event.
In the case of the Tyson Cole hands-on demonstration for making sushi, 58 of the 60 available spots were taken by VIPs, but there was almost double that number of Weekender pass holders in line who didn’t realize they wouldn’t have a chance to participate. “The VIP’s knew what to do because it was crystal clear about signing up for demos when they purchased their tickets, but that wasn’t made clear to Weekenders.”
As for the Grand Tasting, “We’ll definitely be addressing the size, flow and location of the Grand Tasting. With inaugural events, you’re not just going to have problems with programming, but they’re also an investment to get these things off the ground and we had to be conscious of that as we were gauging ticket sales, head count and vendors.”
There were a number of VIP pass holders, including myself, who noticed a number of people at the Friday and Saturday evening events who had “tickets,” rather than neck passes leading many to believe that there was a last minute push to sell individual tickets to the evening events — leaving many VIP pass holders frustrated.
When asked about extra ticket sales, Jones firmly put an end to the mystery. “No one could buy a ticket to those events,” says Jones. “The individual paper tickets people may have seen were given to some sponsors, chef family members and some people who were helping the attending chefs with the event,” says Jones. “There were no tickets available to the public for sale for either of the Friday or Saturday evening events.”
And finally, regarding pricing structure and a la carte event tickets, Jones says they’re looking into what adjustments they want to make for next year, “We’ve heard too much negative feedback from other events across the country on ‘a la carte’ tickets,” says Jones. “Your opinion about what you might want to do, could change as you get closer to the event and we wanted to give people a chance to make a change if they wanted to. As afar as pricing, we’re taking it all into considering whether or not to lower Weekender passes and also about adding more benefits to the VIP passes with things like more reserve wine tastings or VIP only classes. The good news is, we have a good track record of taking feedback and making tweaks as we grow each year.”
As for the dust. Well, you just can’t blame C3 for that. It’s no secret that Auditorium Shores seems to have been the red-headed stepchild of Austin parks since the farewell to the old Austin AquaFest. But Jones is optimistic that the locale will have promise for next year.
“The condition of the grounds was really unfortunate,” says Jones. “But next year, the city parks department and several event producers in the area have agreed to help with the refurbishing of it, whether financially or through consulting. It will be in very good condition next year and that will make a huge difference in the overall experience our patrons will have.”
If the feedback I received from festival goers and Jones’ commitment (and proven track record) for consistently planning better festivals is any indication of what we can expect next year, then I’ll see you at the festival!