Monday, September 6, 2010

Los Angeles Times Celebration of Food & Wine - Devastatingly Disappointing Debut

Prepared to fully enjoy every minute of the last weekend of summer, and the last long weekend before the holidays, to the fullest - I had been excited to see the inaugural Los Angeles Times Celebration of Food & Wine event set for Sunday, and really wanted to like it and hoped for it to be an event to look forward to every year. 

Unfortunately, it ended up being a complete rip-off, and had I paid full price (luckily, my 'designer' friend and I had purchased discounted general admission tickets through Goldstar Events for $39 with fees, versus $65 at the door) - we would have been even more disgruntled.

The concept was great - a general gathering of restaurants, food trucks and wineries / beverage companies to allow for a pleasant day of sampling on the backlot of Paramount Studios.

The execution left a lot of room for improvement:

Marketing - most people we talked to at the event were just as confused as we were, as to what would be included with the price of the admission ticket. Based on event communications, we thought for the high price of admission, there would be plenty of food - with the majority of booths offering free samples, and select vendors offering food for purchase. We arrived at around 1:30pm and were extremely disappointed to find that there were only maybe 8-9 vendors that actually offered free food (bite-sized samples of Voskos greek yogurt, Kyocho fried chicken, korean pancake, calamari from Tantalum, La Brea Bakery bread and Kerrygold cheese, cake balls, curry and thai pancake, strawberry buttermilk gelato). Though we shamelessly went several rounds at each of these booths, it was definitely not enough to be filling.

We did hear of a 'Hoy Cantina' which supposedly served a mexican buffet that only cost one drink ticket, and had a fun mariachi band performance in the space - but they ran out of food very quickly and we never got to experience it. (And again, communication was an issue here - the fact that 'drink tickets' could be used to redeem food in some places, but not others, was confusing). 

The Gorbals / Fiji station also offered bacon-wrapped matzoh balls, but as it was sort of hidden inside a small storefront built into a facade building, so we didn't see it until around 5:15pm by which time they had completely run out of food.

(Not) dealing with the heat: It was a sweltering day - the event started at noon and very little if anything was done to provide more shade or cooling/ hydration stations for guests. They could have easily taking a cue from Vegas and set up misters, fans, water stations or even more canopies, umbrellas or tents to provide shade. The only water that was provided to guests was at the Fiji 'cafe', which had long lines, and a real estate agent's booth (water source unknown). 

We skipped all of the demonstrations / panels as seating was all out in the open with the sun directly overhead.  It was difficult to enjoy the event overall as we felt overheated and dehydrated most of the day, between standing in long lines, weaving our way through crowds and trying to sample as much alcohol as we could handle to get our money's worth.

Limited seating: there were only a handful of tables provided outside the Gorbals/Fiji station for people to sit and eat their food or rest. Everyone else either ate standing up or sitting on the curb or steps (which by the way were riddled with bird droppings) while trying to juggle their purses etc.

Food trucks not included with admission: The major complaint on this one is that we still had to pay for food from these trucks on top of the admission ticket price, and the small selection of food trucks at the event was not even that impressive. If I wanted to sample food trucks there are a number of events around the city I could go to for free (e.g. Abbot Kinney First Friday, Unique LA, Downtown Art Walk etc.) - which offer greater numbers and variety of food trucks in one place, and I would pay only for whatever food I choose to buy from the trucks anyway.  'Designer' had also recently gone to a festival that specifically offered a collection of food trucks for sampling - and paid around $40 for a day of all-you-can-eat at any of the food trucks at the event.  So for the LA Times event, since we had to pay for individual portions of food from the trucks anyway, the food trucks really did not add any value to the price we paid for our admission tickets.

The VIPs seemed to have a much better experience, though the number, and - with a few notable exceptions - the caliber of the majority of the exhibitors were not even in the same league as some of the other more upscale foodie events around LA. For $125, I would much rather go to Taste of Beverly Hills, or Taste of the Nation event in Culver City - both of which offers sampling from restaurants that are truly haute cuisine.

Another component of the event that was supposed to be a highlight, a concert performance by She and Him (love Zooey Deschanel!) - also proved to be underwhelming.  We sat through only the first few songs - the acoustics were so poor that we couldn't hear much of what she was singing.

There were some positives at the event:
  • Drink sampling: 
    • Communications about drink sampling were fairly clear - and the 8 drink tickets were generous and more than enough.  Plenty of alcohol was on pour, from wine, rum, Veev acai vodka to Korean soju and Japanese sake.  It was a great experience walking around checking them out and sampling. A lot of the alcohol vendors did not even bother to collect drink tickets, so we left with over half of our drink tickets still in our pockets.
    • Izze gave out unlimited samples of a large variety flavors of their sparkling fruit juice - this kept us hydrated throughout the day and possibly saved our lives.
  • Delicious Wishes: Great discovery for us at the event, as we had never heard of this place. Very tasty chocolate covered balls that look like truffles but were super moist and fluffy inside - turns out because they are 'cake balls', not truffles :)
  • Sedthee Thai: awesome curry and thai pancakes made fresh on site. One of the best free food samples at the event.
  • Kyocho Chicken booth: Great samples of fried chicken, and event marketing done right. They had a prize wheel as a fun activity integrated with their sampling tactic - and everyone wins a prize that is clearly marked with restaurant branding, that they can carry around in a handy shopping bag that was handing for storing your drink glass (to leave your hands free for more sampling!).
  • Making new friends:  all the negatives of the event helped bring people together - strangers bonded while in the seemingly interminable lines, exchanging tips on where to scavenge the coveted free food samples; showed their humanity in squeezing over in the limited shade to save just one more person's life from the heat; guided others to booths/ bathrooms where volunteers failed to be helpful.
  • Parking:  Since the event was on a Sunday, street parking was free - so we were able to avoid the crowds (and the confusion that we heard that many guests experienced while trying to park on the studio lot) by snagging metered parking on Melrose just west of Larchmont.  It was an easy block and half walk to the event entrance.
Knowing that the first time is always tough, and that the organizers will hopefully take many learnings from this year's event - unless they drastically lower the price of admission, increase the number and quality of exhibitors giving food samples, and get much better organized next year, I for one will definitely not be planning to attend this event again - and judging from the reviews online, many others are likely to join me in deciding to pay just a little more for a much better experience with Taste of Beverly Hills instead.

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