Today's festival-goers are becoming ever more discerning when it comes to food, with dosas and bao taking the place of greasy burgers and chips, and chef demos proving just as popular as the music. Emma Lake reports
This year's summer festivals saw headline acts share the spotlight with some of the UK's best chefs. Whether it was Angela Hartnett sharing a billing with Razorlight or Raymond Blanc supporting Basement Jaxx, the rise of the foodie festival-goer is driving ticket sales and organisers are taking notice.
Former Blur bassist turned cheesemaker Alex James launched Big Feastival on his Cotswolds farm in 2012 with exciting food and chef demonstrations a key part of its offer. The 2018 line-up featured the likes of Marco Pierre White, Mark Hix and Tommy Banks as well as attractions including the Alex James cheese hub, Friday night supper club and street food alley, all dished up alongside the musical stylings of Craig David, Paloma Faith, Professor Green and others.
"The food has been in the concept since day one, but it's evolved massively. We've always had the chef demonstration. We're one of a few festivals with a chef stage and it has always been really popular. We've also had cookery schools to get people experiencing food in a hands-on way.
"The food line-up has really grown. When we first started, we were looking for a cool street-food line-up and there were only a handful [of traders]. We were desperate to get them to the festival. Now that the street food scene has exploded, the choice is unbelievable and the challenge is making sure we've got the right mix as part of that line-up.
"The majority of visitors are here for three days and they are camping, so there needs to be enough for them to see, do and eat. We've introduced sit-down dining experiences and interactive content - cookery experiences and Q&A sessions - which give people a chance to get closer to their favourite chefs. The more different experiences we can add, the better."
Noble says the festival attracts as many foodies as it does music lovers, with digital marketing around the F&B offering consistently garnering a great response.
The importance of a strong food offering in marketing and adding to the guest experience saw Suffolk's Latitude Festival call in streetfood experts Street Feast this summer.
Street Feast, which runs six markets across London, had more than 80 traders at the four-day event, offering everything from bao to pizza, burgers to dosa, and churros to sushi. Street Feast's food boss Harry Japp curated the offering. He told The Caterer: "For decades it's been impossible to attend a music festival and get food much better than you'd find outside a football stadium. Historically this was because most of the food concessions at major festivals were controlled by a couple of big companies who operated the worst of the food trucks themselves. The remaining spaces were sold off to anyone with a licence prepared to pay the pitch fee. Quality was never top of the agenda and the high cost of trading usually meant a rush to the bottom - poor quality and high volume.
"Jonathan Downey [Street Feast's owner] got involved at Latitude around 10 years ago when he opened what we think was the first fully fledged restaurant at a UK music festival. It was a big success and proved there was demand for more than your standard food-in-a-field experience.
"Street Feast got involved this year to provide the food at Latitude. Eighty of the best traders from all over the country served food as good as you'll find in London restaurants. Great people, branding and vibes are all part of it, too - it's not just foodservice. It wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago - those standards weren't there on the street - but that's all changed now.
"We wanted to give all the festival favourites - pizzas, burgers, kebabs - a serious upgrade, while also giving people a chance to try something totally new. Another big thing for us was theatre - putting on a show and involving customers in the process. Huge cuts of meat smoking over a fire pit, that sort of thing."
Street Feast transformed the festival with a 1,200-seater dining area that looked like one of its London markets - complete with shipping containers, festoon lighting and 24 purpose-built trader huts with big lightbox menus. The ares was called Dinerama after its Shoreditch market.
Japp adds: "It looked spectacular - twice the size of our biggest market in London and serving 40,000 a day. Nothing like that had ever been done at a festival before, especially with food at the heart of it.
"The reaction was great, particularly from Latitude regulars. For a festival that champions performing arts across the board with music, theatre and comedy all on the line-up, it didn't make sense that the food was running a decade behind. Not any more."
Street Feast is not the only hospitality business taking festivals by storm. The
Lime Wood and Home Grown Hotels, operator of the five Pig hotels, have been entertaining crowds at its Smoked & Uncut festivals for several years.
Chairman and chief executive Robin Hutson explains: "Most hotels put on wine
dinners or that sort of event for locals. I wanted to get away from that so we decided music was the way to go. The first year we had an acoustic set at the Pig there was probably a couple of hundred people. Now it's grown into four venues, four weekends and up to 4,000 people."
This year festivals were held at the Pig Brockenhurst; the Pig near Bath, Pensford; Lime Wood; and the Pig at Combe, Honiton. Headliners included Dire Strait's John Illsley and his band, Paul Carrack, Razorlight and the Wailers, while food was prepared by Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder of Lime Wood's Hartnett Holder & Co, as well as Mark Hix and Mitch Tonks.
Hutson adds: "It's just built up and we've learned from our mistakes.
We've grown incrementally each year; last year we tried to be over-ambitious, we tried to have nine days of festivals and two-day festivals and that did not
work. We've found the one-day festival is what works for us and four dates seem to work well.
We've grown it so we have two pop-up restaurants, multiple food stalls, numerous bars, six acts on the main stage, an acoustic stage with another six acts and guest DJs in the evening.
"I think the food is a big draw - it's our point of difference to many other festivals. We're small enough that we can still deliver reasonably personal service on all our bars, restaurants and food outlets. I think what's really
important is that the chefs are all there. It's not like we've just put a name over a restaurant and the visitors don't see anyone; Angela had a field kitchen this year and was there every day preparing food, and so was Mark Hix."
Hutson explains that the festivals draw not just fans of his laidback country hotels, but music lovers and foodies, providing an opportunity to showcase the venues and the company's ethos in a more relaxed way.
Hutson explains: "This is certainly promotion for the hotels - not just direct promotion from those who come, but from all the social media activity and so on. It's a good thing that it makes money as well, rather than costing us money. The staff really look forward to it - they work on the day and in the lead up and
strip down - but it's a break from what they do, day in, day out. It's beneficial in a lot of ways."
Craig Povoas - Burger & Beyond
Craig Povoas, founder of Burger & Beyond, has been taking his street food offering around the festival circuit for four years and advises operators to choose venues carefully.
He explains that festivals can be great to build up a brand following, but poorly
organised events can damage your appeal and end up costing in time, money and stress.
Povoas explains: "We've been doing fewer and fewer as time goes on. When
we first started we were doing 18 or 19 in a summer. That's purely because when we started we were naÁ¯ve as to what we were doing; we were picking all sorts and they just weren't worth it. Now, we've found out the ones to go for.
"You need the sales and for the event to be good for your brand. High footfall,
good-quality traders and a good-quality event. I'll always ask the organiser which
other traders are coming, and if they say 'we can't tell you' or 'we've not got anyone booked', that's a red light. If organisers have got real quality and are passionate, they'll share that with you right away."
Povoas advises those looking to hit the circuit not to underestimate the amount of work it will involve. Staff must be drafted in, deliveries of food and equipment must be arranged and organised to ensure, for example, chillers arrive before meat. He describes times when a mountain of logistics, heavy lifting and mud maintenance have taken place before a single burger is served.
But, with festival-goers being ever more concerned about the food offer, there is money to be made. Povoas explains: "People look at the line-up, then they look at the food line-up. I don't think you would have got that three or four years ago. I don't know if people are becoming more foodie, but I'd want to know what food is going to be on offer. Obviously, from the way these events are going, it's important to people."
Luke Holder - Smoked & Uncut
Chef Luke Holder, one half of Lime Wood's Hartnett Holder & Co, is already planning for Smoked & Uncut 2019.
He says that the team has honed the catering offer over the years: "What's worked well is keeping the food offering consistent across all the festivals. We have an opening team, a closing team and the same people looking after the
same areas - we have the same chef heading up each station at every festival.
"Smoked & Uncut moves from one site to the next. Previously we would have a new team of chefs each time and it would be hard work teaching everyone
what needed to happen on each section."
This year, as well as more traditional festival fare, Angela Hartnett was joined by guest chefs to serve feasting-style menus, while Mark Hix set up a curry house described by Holder as a "brilliant offering".
Holder explains: "There needs to be a standard, traditional offering. If you don't have that you'll probably have a little bit of kickback, just because people expect a burger. We try to reflect a different, slightly edgier food offering in one of the stalls, but not all of them.
"All the offers pose a similar organisational challenge: a feasting menu with Angela and friends, menus co-ordinating three chefs, making sure all the ingredients for each course are there and that they dovetail into each other, or
organising a barbecue that can deliver 140 burgers every eight minutes.
"Any business we do at Lime Wood or the Pigs will have food and beverage at
the heart. The music is the thing that will draw people in, but there's an expectation you'll get a food and drink offering when you come to Smoked & Uncut because of the reputation of Lime Wood and the Pigs."
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