Food Festivals

Enough Food Festivals already

It would be possible to spend every weekend of the year at a food festival - every city has one and most counties have more than one. Newspapers regularly recommend the best and there’s at least one website dedicated to helping us navigate them - it currently lists 338 - almost one for every day of the year. There’s sausage festivals, oyster festivals and local to me there’s an irregular Herring Festival and even the Peasenhall Pea Festival.

While I’ve overheard many a punter complaining about having to pay to go into a “glorified farmers market”, we still flock to food festivals in our thousands, they’re the new local fete or day at the fair and the civilised festival experience for those who don’t like camping and smelly loos.

But what do we find to do at these festivals? We get stall upon stall of indistinguishable jams and over-the-top cupcakes swamped by people eating their body weight in samples with no intention of parting with any cash. We fight our way through a stampede of buggies only to decide it’s too far back to the car to bother buying any meat and veg and we’ll stop off at Tesco on the way home.

We see the same band of hungover chefs, touted out by their publishers to publicise their latest book, being marched bleary-eyed onto the stage only to burn the onions because, after a night of boozing, it’s as much as they can do to string sentence together, let alone cook at the same time. Even without the help of hangovers the demos can be chaotic with missing ingredients, stoves that don’t work and interruptions from crying kids, snoring grandpas and ringing phones. If you’re really lucky they’re might even be a video screen focussed on a pile of washing up!

Don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of food festivals, particularly the old guard and the innovators. Ludlow, the first in the UK founded in 1995 and Abergavenny, four years later, still have their hearts deeply rooted in celebrating local, seasonal food and drink - a harvest festival for 21st century. There are innovators like Bristol Food Connections which engages the whole city and both entertains and educates. These festivals are run on shoe-string, dependent on funding and hard-working volunteers to make them happen.

But there are too many that have just jumped on the band waggon with high ticket prices, corporate sponsors and an army of street food vendors serving raw burgers, warm beer and over-cooked paella with no local connections and ingredients from the cash and carry.

Meanwhile dedicated farmers and producers get up at crack of dawn come rain or shine, drive hours every weekend, to farmers markets which struggle to keep going because we’re not using them. You’ll find them there every weekend - because we need to eat every day not just on food festival day. You don’t have to buy a ticket, you can park close by and you can buy fantastic meat, veg and bread - quality everyday food, not just for treats.

We need to stop seeing food as entertainment, going to food festivals to scoff all the samples andspot our favourite celebrity chef in the flesh. Neither should it be the one day of the year we choose to shop from local food and drink producers - we should support them all year because they are there for us all year and we need to eat everyday.

Long live food festivals - but longer live farmers markets!

The original version of this article appeared in Delicious Magazine September 2016.

How to be successful at Food Festivals

If you are a food or drink business thinking of taking part in a food festival here are my top tips which I hope will help!


1. Understand the different kinds of festival

Food festivals fall into three categories:

  1. Authentic festivals which celebrate local food, farming, and cooking (e.g. Abergavenny, Ludlow and Aldeburgh). These festivals are not commercial, no big brand names but they do attract a good engaged audience.
  2. Trade shows for the food sector like Speciality Fine Food Fair or the Farm Shop & Deli Show are an opportunity to meet buyers from independent retailers, wholesalers and supermarkets. They are expensive to attend but can be a worthwhile investment it if you are looking to grow your business; it’s often worth the cost in the long term.
  3. Commercial consumer shows such as Foodies, BBC Good Food and Taste Festivals - these are my least favourite! Visitors go for a day out, often to eat and drink and try as many samples as they can. They tend to be expensive to take part in.  If you sell alcohol or street food they can be fun, but if you're selling fresh or store-cupboard food I'd give these a miss.

2. Do your research

It’s important to research and visit food festivals before you book yourself in. Talk to other producers who’ve taken part in shows before. The food community is supportive and collaborative so they are likely to want to help. It’s also worth giving the organisers a call. Find out who the typical visitor will be, visitor numbers and if buyers or press are attending.

3. Set your objectives

What do you want to get out of attending - do you want to just make a profit on the things you sell that day, is it about reaching a new audience to raise awareness about your brand or is it to meet buyers from retailers or wholesalers, or chefs.

These are all good reasons to take part in shows, but you are unlikely to achieve all three in one go! 

4. Work out the overall cost

Do you need accommodation for you and the team and will you make enough to cover the cost of petrol to travel 200 miles?  

Don't forget all the costs involved, many shows charge extra for electricity, so if you have a product that needs to be refrigerated or power for laptops do make sure you factor this in. 

If you're aiming to make a profit be sure to factor all these costs in. 

5. Think about stand presentation

Do a test run at home, set up a stand and try arranging things in different ways. Get friends to give you feedback. Build height into your stall and use props to give it life. Have clear signage and labelling to make it easy for people to see what you are selling. A pop up banner that tells your story and provenance costs under £100 to produce and is a worthwhile investment.

5. Build up loyalty once you’re at a show

Run a prize draw so you can collect email addresses and send out an email newsletter. This will help you keep in touch with customers and get feedback. For instance, your newsletter can be sent to people who attended a particular show and could then link to Survey Monkey to get feedback on your products from that show. You can also then tell people what other shows you are attending or where they can buy your products.

6. Find ways to draw people to your stand

Encourage people to taste things - it makes it easy to engage with people and draws them to your stand. They may not stop and look otherwise. If you’re selling food, it’s all about the senses, so people need to be able to see, touch and taste the product. The sort of people who go to food shows are into exploring and discovering – and it’s a great way to get your product out there and get people to try it.

7. Tell your story

Engage with people as they pass by and find ways to open conversation with them. There's nothing more off-putting than seeing someone behind a stand, sitting down, on their phone, looking like they'd rather not be there! Ask them questions to open up a conversation and create an opportunity to tell them your story.

If you're not there to run the stand yourself, then make sure the person who is can to talk to people about the products and your brand story too.