lines lines everywhere
Parked – just the latest casualty

The road is littered with carcasses of failed food festivals – an apt metaphor for the latest casualty – Parked on Governor’s Island last Sunday.  Parked is only the most recent instance from a long line of failed street food events.

Some of the events, such as the L.A. Street Food Festival, the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market, and the NY Dumpling Festival were great for the vendors, but long lines made it suck for people attending.  Others, such as the NYC Food Film Festival were great for people attending, but nearly all the trucks did poor to terrible business that day.

Why can’t someone come up with an event that pleases both attendees and food vendors – or better yet – how can they?

NYC Dumpling Festival
NYC Dumpling Festival

With the already huge and still increasing popularity of food trucks and street food, it’s pretty obvious the free model doesn’t work.  In this scenario, a promoter rents space, charges vendors a fee, people get in for free, and pay as they eat.  The biggest problem with this model is forecasting attendance.

For some reason, promoters have consistently underestimated the number of people they expect to attend – often by multiples of thousands.  We understand promoters need to be conservative in their estimates leading up to a festival, but botching this number leads to long lines in cramped spaces, not enough vendors to serve the number of attendees, and the vendors running out of food much sooner than they should.

1st L.A Street Food Festival
1st L.A Street Food Festival

You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out the ratios between the expected number of attendees, the number of trucks, and the number of people that can be served per hour.

If you figure it takes a minute to serve a person, then you can serve 60 people per hour.  If you are open 5 hours and each vendor serves 60 people per hour, then each vendor can serve 300 people per day.  If you expect 6,000 people, then you need at least 20 vendors.  Now I’ve never served masses of people, and I’ve been told by some vendors they serve more like 75-100 people per hour at festivals – but to hit those numbers you need to be ultra-prepared and work like a well-oiled machine.

Parked had around 20 vendors, and it was estimated that close to 10,000 people attended.  No wonder the lines were so long.  You would have needed at least 33 vendors using our math.  And the lines got even longer when certain vendors did not estimate well, and ran out of food themselves much earlier than expected.

Another model that did not work was the NYC Food Film Festival, which was similar to one described above for Parked, but the number of vendors was significantly larger than Parked, and attendence was limited by the fact that tickets were free, but you needed a ticket to get in.

People got the tickets for free months in advance, but when the festival day came and people had other things to do, they blew it off, since it didn’t cost anything.  The sparse attendance was increased by several other factors too: it was close to 100 degrees that day, the USA World Cup match against Ghana, and the venue was at least 10 blocks from the nearest subway.

There were tons of vendors – probably 50 or so, but the only vendor with a line all day was The Krave, which came in from NJ and had that Korean-Mexican fusion cuisine that everyone had read about with the Kogi Truck in L.A, but most people had not yet experienced.  If they charged $5-$1o per ticket, we bet many more people would have shown up.

trucks on lot
NYC Food Film Festival

The model that seems to work best is to charge people a decent amount for tickets, then offer attendees all the food and drink they can digest – and even that is not guaranteed to succeed if your calculations are off.

The 2009 Vendy Awards charged $75 or $80 for general admission, limited attendance to around 800 people – and there were still long lines for some of the vendors as the day wore on.  Big Gay Ice Cream Truck had a long line much of the day, as did the eventual winner, Country Boys Tacos.  Lines for the other vendors varied, but were generally not too bad.

Another reason this worked better is because nobody had to deal with money, which speeded things up considerably.  There was also plenty of space for people to roam around, and lines for the different vendors did not get mixed up – remember, never cross the streams!

2009 Vendy Awards
2009 Vendy Awards

The 2010 Vendy Awards limited the number of tickets , as did Carts In the Parc, which costs $100 per ticket.  While this events can get pricey for attendees, it does increase the odds of having a good time and getting to try as many food and drink items as you want.  The “it’s free – pay as you go” model just doesn’t seem to work.

I’m sure we didn’t think of everything, so please put your comments below.  The more we know, the more we can help future events go smoothly.