Food Event Fever: Why Chefs are Selling Cars

By on Friday, March 16th, 2012

(Banner photo © Plan59.com)

If you want to try some really cool food, find out what the top chefs are serving and sample some good wine, go to a food and wine festival. If you are in the market for a new car and want to take a test drive without the pushy salesman…see above. The explosive growth of festivals around the country (and internationally) has spawned a relatively new offshoot–a hybrid event featuring food and wine as the lure, with a nucleus that is a finely targeted push to burnish a brand.

Ming Tsai was the star attraction at the Buick Discovery Tour in 2012.

One company that has gambled substantially on aligning its image with upscale food events is Buick. With the help of its partners Food & Wine and Liquid Assets Consulting Group, the car maker launched the Buick Discovery Tour two years ago, a multi-venue roaming festival combining hospitality, entertainment and experiential marketing. And by all accounts, the partnership is paying off. “What used to be considered a commodity–a car–is now a powerful lifestyle statement,” says Liquid Assets founder Michael Green, a wine connoisseur turned events marketer. His company is also affiliated with the Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival (run by Food & Wine).

Food has always been at the core of social events, a kind of value-added “thank you” for attending a party. People celebrated WITH food, not the food itself. (Think church suppers or weddings.) Then about 30 years ago, Aspen hosted what was arguably the first Food and Wine Festival.

The Aspen Food and Wine Festival.

A few years later, South Beach followed suit. Slowly, food and then wine became the central focus of a social event that gained momentum with the parallel rise in celebrity chefs, culinary television and an explosion of wine drinkers. As commented by Lauren Glendenning in Vail Daily, “That’s the allure of food festivals — to not only eat delicious food but to learn how it was created and who is behind it.”

So now celebrity food has become the premiere attraction at events. But now with Buick and probably a host of other major brands, some are now carefully orchestrated “experiences” to woo buyers of what seems sometimes like completely unrelated products.

Food events are notoriously difficult to execute–especially for the fact that they involve large groups of people who are hungry, thirsty and have high expectations.

Not even the worst recession in recent times stopped the Food Network South Beach or the New York City Wine & Food Festivals from drawing in more sponsors than ever. “Even in the toughest economy we are still tracking in higher sponsorship sales, year to date,” comments founder and director Lee Brian Schrager. “Both of these festivals are charities so it is a great experience for a great cause.”

Is Bigger Better?

While food event behemoths like Food & Wine are busy launching new locations and, as Schrager put it, “offering more intimate experiences for guests,” the arena includes opportunities for the little guy, too.

Keren Brown banked on close relationships with food professionals in Seattle to launch Foodportunity two years ago.

Keren Brown, a well-known food blogger in Seattle, launched her own version of a food event three years ago. Called Foodportunity, the thrice-yearly event gathers a variety of food-related enthusiasts–from restaurant owners to gourmet food purveyors, even people interested in working for a food-related company–in a deliberately local setting. “My events are different [from the well-known festivals] because they are personal and based on the relationships that I have built over the years,” Brown says. Attendees learn about chefs and restaurants in their area but also swap business ideas and perhaps even form partnerships or new friendships. “Food is a common ground, it gets people talking,” Brown says.

Wine Events Ripen

Within the realm of wine, many event organizers are entering the fray. Emerging small-lot winemakers in central California get the chance to showcase their wines at The Garagiste Festival‘s second annual event in Paso Robles this year. The event is kept deliberately small and organizers pride themselves on that fact. “You know you are NOT a garagiste if you pour your wines at every wine festival from Boston to Boise,” reads Reason #8 on the home page list.

In western Sonoma County, where intrepid winemakers grow pinot and chardonnay grapes in very difficult terrain, a new wine festival sprang up last year as well. Participants must be in the region, using only grapes from that region, to pour. Despite its youth, West of West Festival completely sold out last year a month in advance. “We’re trying to bring awareness to our area but not trying to sell wine to everyone,” explains Andy Peay, co-owner of Peay Vineyards and president of West Sonoma County Vintners. This year, the event remains small although the Grand Tasting has been expanded from one day to two.

Get It Right

Food events are notoriously difficult to execute–especially for the fact that they involve large groups of people who are hungry, thirsty and have high expectations. Comments on Yelp provide an interesting glimpse of both slavish adoration and blunt criticism. The Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival, for example, received appreciative reviews from Randy T., a first time festival-goer last year. “Being served by these highly regarded chefs was a dream,” he comments. “A dream which I would love to experience again.”

Reviews were not so glowing for the 2010 Napa Sonoma Wine and Food Festival (which could explain why there doesn’t seem to be a follow up on that one). “This was the FIRST annual festival, and it showed.  More than an hours wait on Arnold Drive to park in a hayfield,” writes Rhonda T. of San Francisco.

Noela B. from Union City CA rants further. “Not worth even the $65 I paid for two! I bought these tickets only because I was under the impression that the ticket price included unlimited wine and food. Imagine our surprise when we saw the winding lines, that too to PAY for crappy food … far far from gourmet!”

Whatever the reason for the event’s missteps, it is likely an exception to the rule: that most food and wine events are carefully orchestrated down to the last detail…even the new ones. And in the case of Buick’s foray into food, one can even note a different perspective on what was really important here: cars were driving the show. Attendees came for the cars, and stayed for the food. As CarsTravelFood blog, describing it as “culinary rock concert meets car show,” points out, car enthusiasts like to eat, too.

Just keep your greasy hands off the leather interior.

Written by Erika Kotite

Erika Kotite is an editor, writer and owner of Toque.

2 Comments

  1. Mark Moreno says:

    Food Event Fever: Why Chefs are Selling Cars: (Banner photo © http://t.co/Uu57fvsy) If you want to … http://t.co/Oe0a0Lzm via @toquemag

  2. winepiper says:

    Wine News: Food and Wine Festivals Become a Marketing Vehicle – Toque http://t.co/y1CGdMrr

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