Why you should care
Because festival food is going far beyond just pizza and elephant ears.
When attendees flock to BottleRock festival in Napa Valley, they aren’t just paying to hear music. No, the $500 ticket comes with another perk: seeing their favorite musical acts cook, with everyone from shock rock legend Alice Cooper to Atlanta rapper Big Boi delivering dishes from center stage with celebrity chefs such as Padma Lakshmi and Trisha Yearwood.
That’s no coincidence. Food is driving festivals like never before. Food and drink festivals grew 26 percent in 2018 compared to the year before, according to ticketing giant Eventbrite. And a national survey of 2,000 people conducted by the company in May found that more than half of Americans now consider themselves foodies. In the U.K., more than 25 million people said they wanted to attend a food festival in 2015, according to data compiled by the Food Festival Finder directory — a number nearing the 30 million people who attended British music festivals in 2016.
The growing demand is increasingly blurring the lines between the two kinds of festivals, experts say. In the Eventbrite survey, 62 percent say they would go to an event just for the food, and the average American is willing to spend up to $57 for a “unique food event” — with millennials willing to spend as much as $80. In the U.K., the Association of Independent Festivals reported that spending on food and drink at festivals had grown by 40 percent between 2009 and 2018. A survey by business intelligence firm CGA Strategy in 2018 found that the range of food and drink offerings is a key factor in deciding which events to attend for 61 percent of festivalgoers.
You’re already there to indulge.
Biasha Mitchell, Eventbrite
Organizers are recognizing that. At the Music Tastes Good festival in Long Beach, musical acts are paired like a fine wine with chefs flown in from Oakland, Vancouver, Tijuana and more. The week-long Lightning in a Bottle festival, also in California, sells a planned meal package to ticket buyers, and hosts food and wellness workshops in a “Learning Kitchen.” Desert Daze, located in the sprawling stretch between the San Jacinto and Bernardino mountains, has perhaps the trippiest twist: offerings from 20 vendors focused on vegan and health-conscious foods, the types you would more likely see at an urban foodie temple in Los Angeles or New York City. Only Lightning in a Bottle among these festivals existed a decade ago.
“They want to surprise and delight,” says Biasha Mitchell, who runs global music festival strategy for Eventbrite. “To come out of the dust of a festival, and sit down and enjoy a really wonderful, lovely cooked meal in the middle of that is a really special experience.”
Most festivals have always had food — but traditionally it’s been aimed at sustaining the audience instead of being central to the experience. “It used to be pizza, maybe some funnel cakes,” says Virginia Connolly, a 53-year-old from Atlanta who attends Shaky Knees and Music Midtown festivals annually. Not any more. Last September, at Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion in Wales, festivalgoers attended a banquet from a Michelin-starred chef or dined on fresh tastes from the Welsh produce market. ONBlackheath, a London festival also held in September, had its own Food Village, replete with MasterChef winners and TV chefs.
So what’s behind this shift? For one, with less free time than in earlier decades — American adults work an average of 47 hours a week, according to a 2014 Gallup poll, compared to 37 hours in the 1980s — it makes sense for people to want the events they do attend to cater to their multiple desires.
The price of a ticket has changed dramatically too, and with that, expectations of what’s on offer to eat have risen. The lowest-cost tickets to major festivals now cost hundreds, if not thousands, from Austin City Limits ($255, for one of its two weekends) and Bonnaroo ($385) to Lollapalooza (around $400) and Electric Forest Festival ($1,000). Compare that to the cost of, say, California Jam, a festival that attracted 425,000 people in 1974 and 1978 yet sold tickets for $35 — the equivalent of about $140 in today’s dollars.
Consumers today “want to know what they are eating, what they are putting in their body, how it came to be and why,” says business consultant Ashly Bauserman, who advises Mangia DC, a Washington-based company that does historical and themed food tours, from the Georgetown Foodie Tour to Yoga and UnWINEd. “People don’t want average anymore, they want above average, and there is a lot of competition.”
All of that presents challenges for organizers. There are logistical issues, particularly when conscripting local restaurants to try to produce food at a much larger scale, which can lead to frustrating delays. “People can wait in line at a festival for a long time” — as long as an hour, according to the Eventbrite survey — “but they won’t wait in line to miss their favorite band,” says Mitchell, who has also been an organizer for music festivals including Bonnaroo and Coachella. And the food better be good: 66 percent of Americans remember a bad meal they’ve had at an event, and 56 percent said they would never go back to such an event. Quality can be a challenge for organizers to control since the food will ultimately be cooked by the vendor, Bauserman says. The other challenge? “It’s at a pretty big cost to the festival organizers, trying to fit this demand.”
Get the tone right though, and the payoff can be enormous. According to Eventbrite, 84 percent of food festivalgoers say they are likely to post pictures of food while at an event, which means tons of free, organic advertising for the event. It’s little surprise then that music festival planners have started doing separate announcements for the food lineup, typically close to the event weekend, the same way they would for their headliners.
Organic, healthy and local options are in vogue, while kelp, goat and rolled ice cream are foods survey respondents to the Eventbrite survey said they were hoping to try out at future events. CBD-infused foods, which are legal so long as they meet FDA standards, are growing in popularity too. Still, that doesn’t mean attendees aren’t willing to get greasy either. Fried dishes, particularly doughnuts, are popular, experts say, while bacon-based meals are dominating the festival scene. The Bacon and Beer Classic, which began as a one-off festival in 2014, is now a multi-city event company with 13 festivals and a cool $3.7 million in revenue last year.
“You’re already there to indulge,” Mitchell says, which leads to an easy conclusion for festivalgoers: “I’m going to get the most indulgent thing, and I’ll probably never eat this again for that whole year.” In events where hedonism is often the main course, some tasty sides of actual food may just seal the deal.
OZY Fest, New York City’s most eclectic festival of music, comedy, ideas and food, is returning to Central Park this July 20-21. Superstar chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Rachael Ray and Padma Lakshmi will be there, rustling up their hottest new creations for guests. And Ben and Jerry’s will be there to keep you cool. Don’t miss the opportunity — buy tickets here.