From the Trenches
Vending comestibles at ACL
"It's like Vietnam without getting shot at."
So says Luke Bibby of Austin's Best Burger, when asked what it's like to work a food vendor's booth at ACL Fest. "It is just insane. It couldn't be any more intense," Bibby contends. "The food court becomes your whole world. For 15 hours a day, you are going at top speed, looking out at a never-ending line."
The Austin City Limits Music Festival clocks a total attendance of 150,000 people, and nearly all of them buy something to eat. Daily attendance is estimated at 65,000. If even a mere fraction of attendees selects Austin's Best Burger, that's a mind-boggling number of hamburgers to broil.
"The smoke coming off those grills, it is punishing. My eyesight still hasn't recovered from the last time I worked the grill, and that was three years ago," says Bibby. "Nowadays, I've taken on the job of making sure that the folks working my booth are staying hydrated; once an hour I'm going around handing cold bottles of water to the guys working the grills, making sure that nobody passes out – this year."
Despite the rigor of the working conditions, working a stand is universally described as being as intensely fun as it is demanding. "There is very much a carnival atmosphere," says Bibby. "I swear, we have more fun at our booth than the bands are having onstage. We feel like we're onstage! All the vendors are trading food back and forth all day long. We have made so many friends." As with comrades-at-arms, friendships forged in the Austin Eats Food Court are lifelong. "One time I was able to give Terry from Aquarelle a gallon of mayo when she really needed it, and ever since then, when I'm at Aquarelle, I eat for free."
"The sense of community is awesome – you really feel like it's an honor to be there," says Jason Chenoweth of Snowie, purveyors of sno-cone goodness. When told that Bibby had compared the intensity to Vietnam, Chenoweth hesitates. "I never was in Vietnam," he says thoughtfully, "so I wouldn't want to compare it to that. But you know what it is like? More than anything else, it reminds me of this scene in Lord of the Rings, the second movie, The Two Towers, where this small group of elves and men are defending this place called Helm's Deep ..."
(At this point I started laughing, because, yes, I have seen the movie.)
"... from this inutterably immense army of hundreds of thousands of orcs, an army that stretches from horizon to horizon ..."
(And now I am thinking, "I have got to use this quote!")
"... and the whole time they're cheering each other on, and saying: 'Here they come! But this wall must not fall! Not until sunrise!' Although, of course, in our case," he continues, "it must not fall until the food court closes."
Mark Seiler of Maine Root adds additional insight: "Doing ACL is just a blast. It is something you definitely do for the love of it. Because, for all the vendors I know, ACL is a break-even proposition most of the time." This is something I have heard from many of the vendors – there's a very slim margin of error between losing your shirt and making money.
"Longtimers have broken it down," Seiler continues. "The first day's business covers the cost of the booth; the second day you cover your food costs; the third day you pay your labor and make your money. If it rains on any of those days, forget it. You are just not going to make any money that year."
Rain is the great leveler, equally feared and loathed by every vendor I interviewed.
"Rain? Don't even use that word; don't even say that!" exclaimed Bibby when I casually assured him that I doubted there would be any rain this year. Days later, when I mentioned Bibby's superstition about "that word" to Snowie's Chenoweth, he defended Bibby stoutly.
"Well, no one wants to hear that word. No one!" shouted Chenoweth. Okay, I am exaggerating; he didn't shout. But he wanted me to make it clear that no one in Austin had better even think the word "rain" between now and Oct. 10. He laughingly told a story about the universality of this view:
"There was a vendor meeting, and the guy from the health department, he was all: 'Prepare for rain. It happens every year. Rain rain rain rain rain.' And that's just not true; it does not rain every year. And all the vendors, we were all, like, internally hissing: 'Shut up! Shut up!'" Chenoweth sighed. "That guy must have said the word 'rain,' like, 30 times! And we all just wanted to shoot him every damn time he said it. ...
"The thing is, everyone involved is doing this on faith," Chenoweth adds. "Thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars are spent on gearing up and supplies before anyone has seen a weather report."
The other point they're unanimous on is how much they want to continue being a part of it all. "When ACL opens up and they start playing the first song, the theme from Star Wars, I get all teary-eyed and choked up," admits Bibby. "Just the memories, just being there means so much to us.
"I've got the same crew every year, some of them flying in from Colorado and other faraway places, just to work it again. After ACL is over, we always have a party at my house and give out awards, like a silver can opener for the person who opened those 400 cans of queso. It's always a great party; it's like meeting up with your war buddies one last time before everyone goes back to their regular life."