Last October, the first New York City Wine & Food Festival made a big splash, attracting more than 38,000 attendees at 87 events and raising more than $1 million for the Food Bank for New York City and Share Our Strength. For the second round, which started Thursday and ran through Sunday night, organizers expanded the number of events to 120, but many of the evening programs like the Burger Bash sold out in June, faster than last year. The brainchild of Lee Brian Schrager, director of special events for Southern Wine & Spirits and founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, the four-day series was produced by a team from Karlitz & Company, led by consulting executive producer Caryl Chinn and festival executive producer Kate Williams.
To capture a bigger audience this year, the planners focused on creating a wide array of choices, from affordable options like the $10 activity events for kids and $35 culinary demos with the likes of Martha Stewart and Rocco DiSpirito to pricier tickets for gatherings like the $150 Grand Tasting on Pier 54 and a $400 meal with Alain Ducasse as part of a dinner series from the James Beard Foundation. The team also wanted personalities from title sponsor Food Network front and center.
“The network has brought food into everyone's home, and even kids are watching it. My seven-year-old niece and nephew are watching the Food Network. We didn't have that when I was young—it was Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet,“ Schrager said, explaining why stars like Paula Deen and Guy Fieri appeal to a more than just foodies. Chinn agreed: “New York's a challenging market—it's a very savvy market that's saturated with food events, so you don't want the same old same old. I think our niche is Food Network talent and some of these new and fun formats like an all-meatball tasting or an all-dessert tasting.”
Famous names from the specialty channel headlined most of the festival's biggest events. Thursday night's official kickoff party, Chelsea Market After Dark, saw Sandra Lee and Guy Fieri entertaining attendees in separate lounges, and the next night Rachael Ray held court at the Blue Moon beer-sponsored Burger Bash inside the Tobacco Warehouse in Dumbo. On Saturday, Paula Deen and her sons Bobby and Jamie Deen hosted a family-style Southern feast called Down South Up North at Hill Country, and Ace of Cakes baker Duff Goldman governed the late-night dessert party known as Sweet at the Waterfront and La.venue. Giada De Laurentiis capped off the gastronomical weekend on Sunday evening with an Italian-focused tasting at La.venue dubbed Meatball Madness.
Elsewhere, other notable personalities and sponsors had their fair share of the limelight. Ming Tsai of American Public Television's Simply Ming at China Grill appeared at Delta Airlines' Dim Sum & Disco brunch on Sunday afternoon. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio led a food and wine pairing at Craftsteak on Saturday evening. And Zac Posen hosted a dinner at the James Beard House.
The meatpacking district was once again the center of the festivities, housing the welcome center, the headquarters—inside the Standard New York—and more than half the weekend's events. However, with more than 100 events this year, the festival's footprint had to expand beyond the neighborhood's borders. Throughout the weekend, the hungry, food-loving crowds also hit places like City Winery and Astor Center for wine events and seminars, the New School's Tishman Auditorium for culinary demos and group forums, the TimesCenter for panel discussions, the New York City Fire Museum for the 100-mile brunch from Great Performances and Edible Manhattan, and Skylight West for the BizBash Hors d'Oeuvres House. Finding and securing the most appropriate sites involved a lot of advanced planning.
“It's pretty much a year-round process, and we've already got holds on our dates for next year for most of our key venues. In January we start to put together prospective invite lists for restaurants, start to refine some of the concepts, and talk to the talent. That process goes until March, and then from April to May we start to dial in which event is happening at which venue and how many chefs can fit into that venue,” Chinn explained. “Our goal is to be on sale by the time the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen happens in June. By Father's Day weekend, we want tickets on sale so that at that festival we can start promoting our event. There are 5,000 foodies that go to Aspen who love this kind of thing, so it's a good time for us to kick off.”
Planning also required a crew of producers, each assigned to handle the logistics of a particular event. “Kate and I try and touch as many of these events as possible, but we hire the producers for each respective event,” Chinn said, adding that the culinary backgrounds of these producers is an advantage when it comes to organizing large-scale events like the Burger Bash. “The producers are trained and many are currently working as chefs, which helps a lot because they get it. They speak the language and understand from the chef's perspective what we're trying to achieve when trying to serve 2,000 people in a raw space that has no kitchen.”
Aside from a couple of tweaks to some formats and layouts, this year's production was also about keeping expenses to a minimum. “When we started planning everything in January, the economic picture was pretty bleak. Right off the bat I think we were most concerned about keeping costs down—trying to recognize as many economies of scale as we could and really trying to negotiate hard with our vendors,” Chinn said. “The Food Bank and Share Our Strength were hit especially hard this year, and all of us felt that need to try and deliver as much as possible.”
Indeed, Schrager attributes much of the success of his festival to the fact that net proceeds from ticket sales go to hunger relief. “Charity is a huge point for us. I think that's the reason we're able to get the audience that we get and how we're able to do what we're able to do. And I think one of the reasons we're able to get the support of the food world is because we're benefiting two great charities,” he said.
Following the close of an online auction—selling gift certificates, travel packages, and tastings—on Wednesday, the organizers will tally the funds to be donated to the Food Bank and Share Our Strength.