ACL's food court, 10 years later
Before I went to Jazz Fest in New Orleans for the first time, I thought it was funny that my friends talked about what food they were going to eat before they talked about the bands they wanted to see. Festival food in my experience was lackluster at best, more of a necessity to soak up beer and survive a long day in the sun. By my second Jazz Fest experience, however, I had joined the conversation about which vendor had the best Crawfish Monica, soft-shell crab po'boys, and crawfish pies. I had discovered that Jazz Fest is a food destination as much as a premier music festival, a showcase for the world-famous specialties of the regional Cajun and Creole cuisines. With the Jazz Fest model in mind, Austin City Limits organizers sought to provide a similar experience for attendees when planning their new music festival years ago.
"From the start, we always wanted to represent the cuisine of Austin and give the fans a true 'taste of Austin'," says C3 Presents founder Charlie Jones, who is quite involved in the selection of vendors. "There's a small group of us at C3, along with Jeff Blank, who curate the food court vendors." Blank, executive chef and owner of Hudson's on the Bend, was brought on board the second year of the festival as a consultant to improve the food court. The first year, there were very few vendors, so lines were long and attendees were unhappy. Organizers increased the number of booths to about three dozen after that, including small-snack and drink vendors. "The idea was to represent the local restaurant scene ... to capture the Austin feel [and] heritage. Just like the festival, [Austin Eats] has gotten bigger and we think better, more local," says Blank, who has been instrumental in guiding the inclusion of fine-dining restaurants such as Zoot, Aquarelle, Vespaio, Restaurant Jezebel, Roy's, Olivia, and Louie's 106, with varying degrees of success. In 2007, one of the hottest ACL years I remember, Zoot chef Stewart Scruggs served light and refreshing cold soups, which were tasty and nourishing, but the crowd just didn't get it. The restaurant lost money and never returned to the food court. Those soups helped me survive the weekend though. For me, heavy food and triple-digit heat are not the best combination.
Until last year, restaurant booths shared the court with local and national vendors such as Solar Falafel, Ben & Jerry's, and my favorite ACL breakfast spot, Sambazon's açai smoothies. Now there's a swing toward locals only, with the exception of pureheart, a catering outfit from San Antonio that's a long-time ACL favorite, and Fort Worth's Tim Love. Love, a chef to the stars and Jones' personal friend, operates two booths: Tim Love's Love Shack and Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. Some of the vendors, such as the Salt Lick, have been involved since day one, and many have returned annually since the first or second year. Perennial favorites such as Boomerang's, Amy's Ice Creams, Children of the Kettle Corn, Austin's Pizza, and the Best Wurst anchor a revolving cast of newcomers who are often just one-timers due to logistics and finances. "We had a great time last year at ACL," says Martin Frannea, executive chef of Hyde Park Bar & Grill, of its first appearance. "We made a small profit and met many other people in the industry. We were looking forward to a repeat performance, but we were not able to rent the appropriate fryers for our fries. We struggled with six very old rental fryers last year. [It's well known that rental fryers are at a premium during ACL.] They were not dependable or fast enough to keep up with the demand. We considered purchasing the equipment we needed, but it didn't make financial sense to do so."
Vendors enjoy the ACL experience and the camaraderie that ensues among them amid the chaos. They help each other when they run out of ingredients, exchange food, and enjoy cool drinks in the back during relatively slow periods when they can take a break. However, it is widely known that it is not all rainbows and unicorns at Austin Eats. Many vendors have been discontent with the increasing number of booths offering duplicate menu items. Last year, which I dubbed "the year of the burrito," I witnessed considerably slower business compared to years past, with Mighty Cone as perhaps the only exception. While it's true that fans benefited from smaller lines and quicker service, vendors saw a definite drop in sales. "It was the first time that we never even got a rush at all," says the Best Wurst's Jon Notarthomas. "I have been part of ACL since the second year. Certainly, ACL has not been the windfall everyone thinks it is, but it has definitely helped our business. I think there are winners and losers in this game. It is a very difficult business – and a gamble quite frankly – and while we have generally done well, it is much more difficult now to make a good buck than in earlier years. Fees are overwhelming, and the sheer amount of work it takes compared to the reward is a debate in itself."
When asked about these concerns, Jones replied: "As the festival's producers, it is our responsibility to best represent Austin and give the fans the best and most choices possible." Blank elaborates: "The patrons tell us what they want: one-handed food, fast, hot, and good. That, and price, stops a lot of fancier food. During peak times (4-7pm), we want festivalgoers to have a 10-minute wait per order. This year we have four less vendors. This means more money per vendor. We hope it doesn't mean longer waits and lines."
One regular vendor who won't be returning this year is former caterer Luke Bibby of Austin's Best Burgers. "This would have been my ninth year to have been privileged with the opportunity, but we chose not to accept the offer," Bibby explains. Just before last year's event, he got a call from Jones. "I've always said that this is Charlie's party and he can invite who he wants. But when he called to say Austin's Best Burgers was not coming back, I was blown away. Charlie told me to get a food trailer, so I did." Bibby is now serving eclectic, innovative sandwiches at Luke's Inside Out on South Lamar. "As Austin's Best Burgers, I lost money the first year, broke even the second, made $800 the third. I fucking cried. Persistence and having 25 employees come back every year slowly paid off, only to be told not to return. To do burgers and cheese fries again would be an easy thing, but to do my food we're making at the trailer now would not. With costs at 12K in rent, plus labor, food, and equipment, it would be a roll of the dice. I have made so many friends in the trenches and will miss that," Bibby says with obvious sadness.
Another concern I've heard from long-time vendors is the fact that, although their booth fees keep increasing every year, organizers often offer free booths to lure new businesses. This hardly seems fair to long-time players who work hard every year, enduring whatever the weather and crowds have dealt them and paying regular fees year in and year out. "Seems like they could charge the same, lower fee to everyone, instead of having the rest of us cover the new vendors' fees," said one vendor who wishes to remain anonymous.
When asked about the kind of improvements C3 would like to see at Austin Eats in the future, Jones says, "We are constantly striving to improve the food court at ACL, and we always will." Blank is more forthcoming: "Staying local, less vendors if this year goes well. More recycling, a greener feel; we want to be an example of what is green." Last year, as part of the "more local" initiative, C3 added a HOPE Market court near Austin Eats, which will return for a second year with vendors selling food, beverages, arts & crafts, and other popular items from the East Austin market. Other 2011 Austin Eats highlights include the debut of chef Bryce Gilmour's Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, the return of Olivia's fantastic fried chicken (get it by the bucket and feed your whole crew!), and your last chance to enjoy Aquarelle's French-style sandwiches, because the restaurant closed on Sept. 3. Chef and owner Terry Wilson said they are looking forward to ACL as one of the last events they will be participating in as Aquarelle. "We are considering keeping Aquarelle for events only," says Wilson, "depending on how we do this year." Patronize Wilson's booth if you want to see them again next year, continue to support other favorites, and welcome new ones with your dining dollars. Believe me when I say they appreciate your business.