Feeding the Beast
ACL food vendors talk strategy for the two-weekend challenge
As we gear up for ACL, my thoughts are with the food vendors who will endure exhaustingly long work days not one weekend, but two in a row. Despite searing temperatures or pouring rain, unexpected equipment malfunctions, even last-minute trips to San Antonio to find fryers, these folks do whatever it takes to keep us fed. Longtime attendees will notice the absence of Terry Wilson's steak and frites sandwiches and Luke Bibby's gourmet steamed buns and ice-cold watermelon slices. But many favorites are returning, including the Salt Lick, Stubb's, the Mighty Cone, and the Best Wurst. "It's going to be a challenge, and I can only hope that two weeks means double the sales," says Best Wurst owner Jon Notarthomas of this year's gig. "All I can think is that one week nearly kills everyone, even though we've got our system nailed thanks to our capable, veteran staff. We still do well, but now with a farmers' market and all its new options, it's a very tough game."
Indeed, the HOPE Farmers Market area is here to stay, with vendors like Lamba's Royal Indian Foods, the Seedling Truck, and HOPE Coffee House tending their own long lines of folks seeking a wider selection of vegetarian and gluten-free alternatives. Regardless, Notarthomas remains optimistic. "I will say that it'll be easier now that we are in October. Chance of cooler weather is a better forecast for sales and energy conservation. And of course, a hot sausage sandwich is best when the weather is cool."
Chef David Bull is bringing back Second Bar + Kitchen's Vietnamese báhn mì, winner of last year's people's choice award. "It was an incredible experience – we made a lot of new friends and felt like we successfully navigated the beast," says Bull. "We sold roughly 14,000 items. It turned out to be the most challenging thing we have ever done." This year, Chef Bull and crew are preparing to sell between 20,000 and 23,000 servings of báhn mì sandwiches and truffled pomme frites. "It's much more challenging because it's not just one and done. There are timing issues, storage issues, sanitary issues, et cetera. Luckily, we've partnered with the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts again to help prepare the food with me and my team. The students help maintain timing and scheduling, basically making sure everything gets done. We prep together for six days straight to produce more than 6,000 pounds of protein and other items. We have a refrigerated truck on-site at the school for storage and transport. Without their support this wouldn't be possible. We are also excited to partner with the UT Nutrition Institute, to give their students an opportunity to see what a catering gig at this magnitude requires."
With all the changes going on at La Condesa, we were curious to know how this newcomer is preparing for the huge endeavor. Owner Jesse Herman says they're "bulking up staff, making lots of spreadsheets, ordering equipment, and preparing to be covered in cheese for two weeks. ... We are planning on serving somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 pieces of Mexican street corn." Alexis Lanman, director of marketing and events, elaborates via email: "We are bringing out the B.A.G.s (big ass grills), refrigeration, hot boxes, ovens, et cetera. We are trying to invent a mayonnaise spray gun, but we're not sure we'll have that ready for this year. But the equipment is only the building blocks; our support team makes it happen. The guys who haul the trash, break down boxes, resupply fresh ice – they are the real heroes of the operation." Other newcomers this year include Frank, Hat Creek Burgers, Southside Flying Pizza, Mmmpanadas, and the Peached Tortilla.
Aside from a must-have hot dog from Frank, food items already on my to-do list are the Seedling Truck's roasted goat tostada with pickled red onions, sour cream, and cilantro; Italian pork roast sandwich from Noble Sandwiches; and the Peached Tortilla's Thai summer beef salad. And, of course, it wouldn't be ACL without some New York-style buttered-salt potatoes from the Best Wurst.
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that vendors at the HOPE Farmers Market receive free booth space; in fact, they pay for booth space.