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Are You Ready to Take Your Show On the Road?

Are You Ready to Take Your Show On the Road?

It’s Never Too Late to Jump On the Summer Festival Bandwagon

From clothing designers and tech to music and media, the summer festival season has become the buzz-marketing channel du jour. Where there are festival crowds, there’s a captive, hungry audience with expendable cash. Even the most established brick-and-mortar operation might be tempted to take a bite out of festival, street fair or farmers market traffic.

06 03 are you ready 1There is much to consider before leaping into the food fray of festivals. Focus on details before loading up the trailer to optimize profits and gain a heaping side of brand exposure for your restaurant. The first step is selecting the right venue for your operation. Ask yourself:

  • What is the event theme and is this my target audience?
  • What is the cost to participate, and what is included (e.g. license, insurance, storage, equipment, marketing/promotion, electrical, Wi-Fi, refrigeration, etc.)
  • Is the event well established with an evolving fan base?

Amy Mills is the co-owner of 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Ill., and founder/director of OnCue Consulting for barbecue restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. A veteran vendor of big festivals, she cautions owners to consider all aspects before signing on.

“There are numerous opportunities to take your show on the road, including charity events such as the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. While they provide the food we cook, cash registers and staff, and reimburse some expenses, the event actually costs us money. The PR benefits, however, are enormous,” says Mills.


Chicago-based M Burger, part of the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group, has been serving its signature burgers at the city’s major events for seven years, including the renowned Lollapalooza music festival. It’s a perfect fit for his operation, says M Burger chef partner Tim Hockett. During the annual, four-day festival, M Burger serves about 23,000 burgers to a hungry Lolla crowd in a 20-foot by 20-foot booth, staffed by two to three chef managers and 24 staff members, with four griddles.

 Once you zero in on a good target, what will it take to make your festival experience a success? Profitability is certainly important, but ensuring your brand integrity is intact is critical. Hockett suggests identifying one signature dish to bring festival-goers a unique taste of your restaurant, and another that you know inside and out to ensure product quality and consistency. An outdoor festival is easily impacted by weather or power outages, or your own miscalculations. When you know your product well, you are more easily prepared for last-minute substitutions or adjustments to your dish if the refrigeration goes out, for instance.

Food safety and integrity can be one of the most challenging aspects to presenting your fare at an outdoor festival. Ask the organizer about the arrangements they’ve made to protect vendors’ food quality. Lollapalooza provides refrigerated trucks along with 24-7 staffing to ensure food is safe.

The primary drawback to participating festivals is the potential money loss for an event that doesn’t meet attendance expectations, says Mills. “Even a good event can turn bad if the organizer changes location from year to year. And if the event is not well established, you are depending on the marketer to get a good number of people there.”

Mills advises that the best way to leverage the opportunity is through clear and consistent signage and branding at the event. She suggests, however, that you might go a little further by reaching out to local news media to secure a television demo or radio interview about the festival and your experience; then post the link via your social media channels and tag the event’s channels. Additionally, take advantage of any free publicity offered by event organizers through their website, pre-event marketing and media outreach. Engage with customers personally at the event and offer coupons and clearly branded swag so they’ll know how to find you afterward.

Finally, ensure that your staff’s festival experience is positive. “If they’re having fun and enjoying the experience, it will translate to our guests’ experience,” says Hockett. “We select our top performers and work really hard, but we have the best time and our guests love it.”

“We want to reward our guests by being there with their favorite burger.”
- Tim Hockett, M Burger Chef

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