As spring emerges in the Valley, so do the food festivals -- and they seem to be getting bigger and more popular every year. At last weekend's Devoured Culinary Festival, more than 45 restaurants participated. And the event sold out a month beforehand.
Given the money spent, time away from the restaurant, and efficiency unknowns, are food festivals worth it, from a restaurant's perspective?
I asked Valley chefs and restaurateurs to reflect on the pros and cons of food festivals, and this is what they had to say:
Heather Bryan, General Manager, Zuzu
Food festivals offer a chance to show off your restaurant and, hopefully, have an impact on the public so they remember your food and come visit your facility. Unfortunately, it's hard to track a return on your investment. Also, there are so many other vendors that, unless you really stand out, chances are you'll be forgotten by the end of the day.
Chef Stephen "Chops" Smith, Searsucker Scottsdale
Food festivals can be fun! The chef gets to play around, get out of the restaurant, breathe some fresh air, and get in touch with the public. On the other hand, some food festivals have the potential to turn into drinking festivals, where the guests don't give a shit what you're serving and they're just there for the party.
Michael Rusconi, Chef and Owner, Rusconi's American Kitchen
I only get involved in festivals that benefit charity. I like a captive audience where we can deliver our message and have always felt that some of the big events where you feed 1,000 to 5,000 people are often a waste of time from an exposure standpoint. Often, guests stop at 15 or 20 booths and can't remember where they ate. You can get lost in the crowd.
Gina Buskirk Chef and Owner, Gina's Homemade
Food festivals can be a good way to showcase your restaurant in front of a large audience, but the flip side is that they can be a distraction to running your core business. You're typically just one of a large number of restaurants vying for attention, and your message can easily get lost in the din.
Shin Toyoda Sushi Master at Sushi Roku
Food festivals reach a broader spectrum of guests -- more than who would naturally come through the restaurant. They can also represent restaurants in the wrong light because the dishes may not taste as good as they would in the dining room. Food hardly ever comes out perfect when made in mass quantity.
Chef Stephen Toevs The Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix
A pro is you get to have fun and hang out with fellow chefs. It's a great time to get out and share a passion of cooking with others. On the other hand, food festivals generally do not result in a large amount of revenue for the restaurant. People go to festivals to eat a lot of food from different vendors, but at the end of the event, everything starts to blur. In the end, the festival does not necessarily bring more diners through the restaurant door.
Brian Dooley, Chef and Owner, Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue
Food festivals are a lot of fun and an opportunity to try many different restaurants in one place. The downside is that much of our dining experiences are directly related to the ambiance and service of the restaurant space itself. It's important to visit the actual restaurant if you really enjoy certain foods at the festival so you get the full dining experience.
Bernie Kantak Chef and Partner, Citizen Public House
Food festivals change up the daily grind and get us out of the kitchen for a day for a little bit of face-to-face with our guests. It's always fun to see what everybody else has come up with to make their booth the most memorable. The downside is they are usually on busy days or Sundays, which make preparation for both the event and daily service a bit more challenging than it should be, especially for us little guys.
Chef AJ Benga RnR
A pro is getting your food out there to a mass amount of people. A con is that at a food festival, you're cooking a generic menu for a plethora of palates. Some people are there for the food, others are drawn in by more of a show. You can have the best-tasting dish, but if the booth next to you has bikini models handing out samples, that booth might stick in people's minds. At the end of the day, it isn't always about the food.
Romeo Taus Owner and Chef, Romeo's Euro Cafe
Pro: An opportunity to expose the restaurant to a massive group of people in a short amount of time.
Con: Unless the festival is within three to five miles of your restaurant, the economies of scale don't work. Not enough return for the effort.
Eric Flatt, Co-owner, Tonto Bar & Grill/Cartwright's Sonoran Ranch House
Pro: To show the world what you have to offer and hopefully attract new customers.
Competition is great for your staff and it lets them know where you stand compared to the other restaurants surrounding you.
Con: Is it really worth all the time and expense? Did we capture new customers? If so, at what cost?
Farah Khalid Chef and Owner, Curry Corner
Food festivals allow small restaurants to market their food, interaction between chefs, and a more personal interaction with customers. The cons include not being able to re-create what one is able to do in their own restaurant. With limited equipment, things can go from bad to worse. Things have to be extensively planned and usually, due to the size of food festivals, each restaurant is able to showcase just two or three things.