Had a Coffee Expo. Went Real Good. Here’s How We Did It. You Can Too.


So, what does it take to put on a street festival like the Asheville Coffee Expo?

“On behalf of The 2017 Asheville Coffee Expo, THANK YOU to all of the amazing vendors, and our wonderful partners & volunteers, and the residents & managers of the Glen Rocks Apartments, as well as our gracious hosts Sarver Realty Group, PennyCup Coffee Co., & Eco Depot Marketplace. Big thanks to The City of Asheville, North Carolina who were a pleasure to work with again this year! Another big thanks to all of our generous sponsors (see list below), and of course the biggest thanks of all to YOU, the awesome coffee-loving public, who showed up en masse, ate & drank samps, bought stuff, were mellow AF, and had a really nice time together! We love you all, we love doing this event, and even though we’re taking a little bit of a break this week, we’re already planning for next year!” – Stu Helm & Angie Rainey, Asheville Coffee Expo Organizers  [ quote from facebook | photo by Debora Kerr ]

After it was all over, except for #TheStruggleIsReal to break down our tent…

Walking with my friend Dave Bristol (Aka Spaceman Jones) post-expo, he asked me what he would have to do in order to produce a [super-awesome, totally amazing, kick-ass] street festival like the Asheville Coffee Expo. I’d been asked this question before, and so had already put a little thought behind an answer, and my first piece of advice to Dave was the same as it would be to anyone else: Get a great partner or partners who have similar interests, but different skill-sets than your own.

Doing something as complicated as a street festival would be almost impossible for one person to pull off. Especially if that one person smokes as much fucking weed as I do. (Dave.) So, yeah, my partner on the Asheville Coffee Expo is, of course, the ever-organized, clear-headed, energetic, and awesome Angie Rainey (CoffeeCrate.co), with whom I share a keen interest in coffee (duh) and self-promotion, but who has skills that contrast and compliment my own skills very nicely.

Angie does math. I do words.
Angie does spreadsheets. I do graphic design.
Angie does contracts. I do social media.
Without Angie, The Asheville Coffee Expo wouldn’t happen.
Without me, it wouldn’t exist.

The 1st annual Asheville Coffee Expo in 2016 was my concept, born out of a pretty basic observation that I made as a non-drinking food writer living in Beer City / Foodtopia USA: Weren’t no coffee festivals in Asheville, Yo. There’s about ten million beer fests of course, and then there’s also a lot of food fests — from Taste of Asheville, to The Wing War, to The Great American Jerk-Off — even livermush has it’s own dang festival out there in Marion, NC, but WTF, there weren’t any coffee festivals, so getting back to Dave’s question, that’s the first step to putting on a street festival:

Figure out what’s missing, what’s needed, and what might be a fun and popular thing for people to do.

Okay, before I get ahead of myself, let’s just get listy wid it. Below is a quick list of the steps I took to get my concept out of my imagination and into the streets. I hope that it can serve as a guide for Dave and anyone else who is a novice — as Angie and I were — to putting on a street festival.

Step 3: A written proposal… w/ graphics. – image by Stu Helm


1) A Great Concept – No shit Sherlock, right? But you’d be surprised. There’s a lot of shitty ideas flyin’ around out there, and a lot of the good ideas are already taken. I was kinda shocked that no one was doing a coffee-centric festival in Asheville already, but nope, so my concept was all good to go! Also: Coffee is popular. Picking a popular concept is fucking crucial. Pick something that people like, Dumb-ass. I used to book super-duper obscure heavy metal bands for a living. Wooooo… tough sell. Coffee? Much easier. Pick your concept wisely. 

2) The Perfect Location – A street festival ain’t a street festival without a fucking STREET, is it? After formulating my concept, but before I did anything else, I scouted out a possible location for the 2016 Asheville Coffee Expo. In this case, I picked Ralph Street, which is in the South-Eastern tip of the River Arts District.

In 2017, the Asheville Coffee Expo spilled-over from Ralph Street onto Depot Street. Get it? Spilled over. – Map by Stu Helm

Here’s why I chose the location I did:
a) It is close to my own house. I don’t drive, so this was a legit concern for me, and should be for you too. You should pick a street / location that you have easy access to at all times, leading up to the event, because you will be there a lot as you prep for your festival.
b) Ralph Street is small, and although it is well-traveled, it’s not crucial to traffic or parking in or through that neighborhood in a significant way. In other words: Taking over Ralph Street with a festival shouldn’t piss off the people who live or drive in the area. Of course, people get pissed-off no matter what, so be prepared for a little bit of that, and have a smile ready to deal with the most irrational mother-fuckers who think they have a god-given right to street parking an inch away from their front door 24-7, 365 days of the year. Deocks.
c) The City kinda loves it when you wanna bring attention to areas of Asheville outside of downtown, so I figured they would be super helpful, and they were. (more on that later)
d) That part of the River Arts District is a little bit lonely, and doesn’t get much foot traffic, so I figured that the business owners in that area would be supportive of a festival that brings attention to their location. They were, and it did.
e) The final reason I picked Ralph street as a location for the Asheville Coffee expo is that PennyCup CoffeeCo is right there, and they have a roaster in the shop as well as an espresso machine. I wanted a coffee roaster to be at the epicenter of the Asheville Coffee Expo, and I wanted an indoor space in which to have the barista competitions.

3) A Written Proposal w/ Graphics – If you wanna get any-fucking-body interested in being your partner on a street festival, you need to be able to explain WTF  your concept is to them articulately, succinctly, and intelligently… with graphics. Graphics are like bacon, Yo, they make everything better. At the top of this list is a jpeg of the 4 page PDF file that I put together, explaining my entire concept to my potential new partner, in order to get her interested. It worked! 

4) Partner(s) – As I have mentioned already, having partnerships that integrate the complimentary skill sets of various people with similar passions and a common goal is key. Unless you are Doctor Octopus, you can not do all the things it takes to run a street festival all by your self. (Because, y’know, Doctor Octopus had a LOTTA arms, so, I’m thinking he’s a good multi-tasker. But also a super-villain, so please, if you know Doctor Octopus, do NOT encourage him to organize a street festival in Asheville, because, no fun.) Anyhoodles… I already outlined some of the skills that Angie and I don’t share, but one of the most important aspects of our partnership is that we both have an insane network of coffee, food & beverage industry people. A large network of like-minded individuals is absolutely necessary,a nd our combined network is AWESOME. I can not stress this enough: Pick your partnerships very wisely.

Angie Rainey from CoffeeCrate.co & The Asheville Coffee Expo w/ cortado & vendor application forms) – photo by Stu Helm

5) The City – The City of Asheville — rightfully so — has a whole buncha steps you must take, and procedures you must follow before, during, and after a street festival. Remember: You are asking permission to shut-down a public throughway. That’s a pretty big ask. Don’t be a shit about it. You’ll wanna go here: http://www.ashevillenc.gov/departments/community/outdoor_special.htm  And you’ll wanna read The City’s rules, regs, and recommendations. Do everything they tell you to do, and do it with a smile. You’re lucky-as-fuck to even live in this city, let alone claim a whole chunk of it for yourself, even for just a few hours. The folks who work for The City are nice, friendly, and helpful. Recognize that they are human beings, treat them as such, and they will do the same for you.

6) Participants – If you’re gonna throw a street festival, you need some individuals, organizations, businesses, creative types, and all kinds of other people to participate, because without participants… your street fest won’t be very fucking festive, will it? In 2015, when I started thinking about the first Asheville Coffee Expo, I made a mental list, and then a physical list — and eventually Angie made a spread sheet — of all the potential vendors, sponsors, charities, competitors, volunteers, and other participants that we could think of. Then Angie and I developed some written materials… with graphics… to entice those people and entities to participate in the inaugural event, and again a year later in the 2nd annual Asheville Coffee Expo. Our enticing materials worked and we had great participation both years!

7) Money – Em. Oh. En. Eee. Why. You need it in order to run a festival. The City requires it from you. The electrician, carpenter, and other tradespeople you work with will want some in exchange for the services they provide. You’ll need to purchase banners, and signage, and ad space, and flyers, and posters, and T-shirts, and hats and whatever the fuck else you’ll want and need to pull this shit off. Plus, you gotta pay yourself. I’m the type of idiot who’s willing to work for peanuts just to make my dreams come true, but Angie isn’t! And if our festival didn’t at least pay for itself in year 1 or 2, and start making us some decent money by year 3 or 4 we’d be fucked, plain and simple. You can make money several ways with a festival, including vendor fees, sponsorships, donations, ticket sales, and merch. Figure it out, Yo.

Merch costs money. – photo by Angie Rainey

8) Time – Angie and I had the time to do the Asheville Coffee Expo because our own businesses are flexible. Angie owns a Coffee subscription service, and I own… um… a… person named Stu Helm… I’m not quite sure what I own, but that’s not the point! I just know that both Angie and I had time to devote to organizing, promoting, and producing something cool and fun that is directly related to what we’re already doing, like the Asheville Coffee Expo. If you and your partners don’t have time to do a festival, don’t even fucking try. You will fail, and it will stress you the fuck out.

9) Energy – It’s exhausting just thinking about how exhausting it is, and I’ll just leave it at that.

10) PMA – A positive mental attitude. Holy fuck. If you don’t have anything but THEE most positive attitude possible about doing anything as time-consuming, energy-draining, expensive, frustrating, and logistically challenging as a street festival, fucking forget about it. Your life, and the life of your partner will become a nightmare. I can’t tell you how many times Angie’s smiling face reassured me that everything was going to be fine, or how many times I myself had to assure Angie that it’s alllll good. Rolling with the punches is key. Letting go of impossibilities is crucial. Eating pastries during meetings doesn’t hurt one bit.

12) A Great Press Release – Holy shit, a great press release… with graphics… is so fucking important. Your press release should basically be a very short article about your event, with every single bullet point incorporated, so that members of the press can either use it for inspiration to write an article of their own, or literally cut ‘n’ paste it word-for-word into a post on line. They do both! If you can’t or don’t know how to write a great press release, you can hire someone to write it for you. I write awesome press releases, (see HERE) and you can totally hire me to write your press release for you. I charge five million dollars. Per word.

13) A Strong Social Media Presence, Network, and Campaign – If you’re not good at social media, you will fail. Seriously, if you can’t do it, make sure you hire someone to do it for you. Social Media is super-duper-ooper-important. Make a Facebook Page and a Facebook Event Page. Tweet. Instagram. Podcast. All major social media platforms should come into play. When you work with people, impress upon them the importance of doing their own social media posts about the event. Think social media at all opportunities. Even when I chose my celebrity judges for the espresso competitions, I made sure to choose people whom I already know are active on social media. Posts, comments, shares, “likes,” and every single on-line interaction you can get is your friend in spreading the word about your event. Ignore social media at your own peril.

Celebrity judges L-R: artist Jeri Bartley, bon vivante Sarajane Case, rapper & radio show host Dave Bristol AKA Spaceman Jones – photo by Dawn Roe

Okay, there you go, 13 things that I hope are helpful in getting my friend Dave, and maybe you too, started on the road to producing a street festival of your own! Get it? On the road… to a street festival.

I like fun.

I want more street festivals to happen all over town! Small ones, medium sized ones, I even like the monsters of rock that take over Pack Square all the time — Vegan Fest, Hard Lox, Goombay, Brewgrass — those beautiful beasts are the big league! Maybe one day the Asheville Coffee Expo will grow to be that size, but in the meantime, we are super happy with turn out, and participation, and with just being a little ol’ coffee oriented street fair in one, small, out-of-the-way corner of Asheville’s underutilized River Arts District. Please come to the 3rd Annual Asheville Coffee Expo next year! We’ve already selected a date, and created a logo, and a Facebook Event Page.

~ END ~

From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O’SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM

Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.


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