Weathering the Storm
What happens to the food when a festival is canceled
Austin's recent string of festival cancellations were disappointing for organizers and attendees alike, but the ripple effects extend beyond just ticket refunds. The festival economy figuratively puts food on the tables of thousands of temporary employees, but also literally feeds legions of foodies and psych rockers. So when Mother Nature throws torrential shade, what happens to all those Black Angels queso fries?
Brian Wilson surely has a cancellation clause, and festivals the size of Levitation and the Austin Food + Wine Festival have rainout insurance, but liability insurance for a humble artisan Popsicle peddler only covers him in case someone chokes on a pop after too much Uncle Acid. Every vendor's agreement with the festivals is different, but most have no guarantee on lost revenue.
Brent Fogerty of Cold Ones Pops spent a month prepping 4,000 paletas, a colossal number of desserts for a small wholesale vendor. "We produced a similar number last year for Fun Fun Fun Fest, and it ended up being a rainy weekend," says Fogerty. "I think I had over 2,000 pops that ended up being donated because by then my wholesale season really slows down."
It seems like a disaster that could cripple a young business, but you don't grow to festival capacity without having friends you can rely on. Fogerty credits Levitation for doing their best to make sure the transition was as smooth as possible for vendors, but he also relied on an outpouring of support from the local food scene. For one, Contigo purchased a few cases of pops for their employee party. They know the feeling of being stuck with extra product: The cancellation of Austin Food + Wine left them with 1,800 small bites of pork and lamb on their hands.
"When we got word that it was canceled, my first instinct was obviously to utilize the meat because you don't want it to go to waste," says Contigo owner Ben Edgerton. "We took half the meat over to Chicon and worked up dishes to give away to people."
Like Contigo, Ramen Tatsu-Ya was also flush with extra ingredients after the AF+W cancellation. Roughly 350 servings of "tofu hot pocket," made with a tofu sleeve, brisket, scallions, and cheese, were able to be repurposed. The brisket went into a dipping tsukemen special, tofu sleeves became veggie ramen toppings, and scallions are used in just about everything. The only exception was the cheese, which was carefully resealed to save for later. "Maybe, hopefully, we'll have an employees-only fondue party," says Patrick Jones of Ramen Tatsu-Ya.
According to C3, even traveling chefs were able to repurpose their ingredients for use in their home cities, but what's irreplaceable is the physical and mental man-hours required to prepare to operate at festival capacity. "A lot of people don't realize what it takes to produce quality food efficiently at that level, pace, and volume," says Daniel Northcutt of Frank. "I have more commercial equipment on the ground at a festival than I do at any of my restaurants."
Although Northcutt was admittedly bummed to miss out on the "once in a lifetime opportunity" to run a Brian Wilson special at Levitation ('shroom fries!), he's weathered bigger storms before. After the great Sunday ACL cancellation of 2013, it became clear that no festival is immune to safety concerns from inclement weather. "There's no one mad they weren't out there on Friday night at Levitation, we've all seen the photos, the right call was made," says Northcutt. Thankfully Northcutt can move unused product through his other restaurants, as well as a packed schedule of other events.
As far as smaller vendors like Cold Ones, their freezers are now over-stocked and triple-digit heat can't come soon enough, but the cancellation was actually a blessing in disguise and resulted in several new wholesale accounts thanks to sympathetic colleagues.
"As much as I would have loved to have worked the festival and seen the lineup, I'm super happy with the results of the weekend. We definitely made lemonade," says Fogerty.