Dave Cooper is an environmental activist, food vendor, and organiser of Kentucky’s Whippoorwill Festival.
I operated a food stall at a small music festival in Kentucky a couple of summers ago. My food costs were just over $400. After two days of preparation and two days of vending, I had reclaimed just $95.
Food vending can be a tough business, and festival organisers should endeavour to understand the difficulties that vendors face before they start booking them for their event. After all, having happy food vendors means good food and happy attendees.
My unsuccessful food vending experience was mostly due to the bad location of my booth and poor communication. One event organiser told me prior to the festival that there would be only two food vendors total; the other guy was selling beef barbecue, so I planned to sell burritos, quesadillas and vegetarian wraps.
But when I arrived on the festival site the day before the event, I was annoyed to see a third vendor setting up, featuring a very extensive menu. It turns out that this vendor – who was initially contracted to feed the performers and the volunteer staff – was selling to everyone. The unexpected competition, plus the poor location of my booth, meant that I hardly sold anything. I packed up my truck and drove home before the event was even over, and I ended up throwing away most of my food.
In other words, after working for almost four full days I earned a negative $300.
Food vending is a gamble. One experienced food vendor says that every time they sign up to work an event, “it’s a roll of the dice.”
When it rains, no one stands out in the rain to buy burritos. If it’s cold, they don’t buy ice cream. If it’s too hot, they don’t buy chilli.
When festival organisers book too many food vendors, sometimes none of the vendors make any money. For the event organiser, that means that most of them won’t come back next year.
When there aren’t enough food vendors, the lines are too long and / or food runs out. Attendees hate long lines, and going hungry means they won’t come back next year.
Vegetarians, vegans and gluten-intolerant attendees often have difficulty finding anything at all to eat at some festivals. Attendees’ expectations for the quality of food served at festivals have increased greatly, but I still see food vendors serving pre-grilled hamburger patties that have been sitting in their warming ovens all afternoon.
Food vendors face other challenges besides competition from other vendors. Health Departments can shut down a food vendor down for seemingly minor infractions, such as a personal drink on the food preparation table. In the US, food vendors are not permitted to bring home-prepared foods to an event, unless it was prepared in a certified kitchen. This means that all foods must be made onsite, which can be tricky in an outdoor setting with limited access to electricity, hot running water, and so on. Flies are another issue that can cause the Health Departments to shut down a food booth – but controlling flies in an outdoor setting is the responsibility of the festival site management, not the food vendor.
At any rate, if the Health Department shuts someone down, that food vendor is going to lose a lot of money. Meanwhile, the food vendor is often battling the outdoor summer heat, trying to keep meats and dairy products at safe temperatures in their coolers. This is sometimes difficult, and good food vendors stress greatly over keeping their booth clean and their food safe. If there is one thing that food vendors all want, it is a cheap and plentiful supply of ice.
Some festival organisers may not understand that good food vendors actually need months of preparation time to plan their menus, order food, purchase specific gear, hire their crews, and so much more. In our four-month long talks ahead of a festival last year, myself and three other food vendors discussed which booths would go where, shared tips from previous years, and talked about our menu items so that festival attendees would have a wide variety of foods from which to choose, while making sure that two vendors were not selling the same item. We like to think of this group effort as a kind of friendly competition.
Good communication with food vendors prior to the event is the key to happy vendors and happy attendees. Vending fees should be set to reflect the real risk that food vendors take every time they work an event.