It’s been a couple of weeks now since the first ever Chow Chow food festival in downtown Asheville. Folks have had time to catch their breath and start assessing how it all went.
A reminder on how it started: the Asheville Food & Wine Festival had run its course over the past decade or so and quietly ended in 2017, so a group of Asheville’s culinary rock stars, led by Chef Katie Button of Curaté, started brainstorming what a new signature culinary event would look like. They decided on an event that would celebrate not just chefs, but all the “makers” required for a great meal, from the farmers and chefs to everyone in between. The result was Chow Chow, named after the familiar Southern relish. Button and Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolates co-captained the planning, which officially organized as a 501c3 nonprofit entity and assembled a board full of Asheville’s most well-known chefs and restaurateurs.
All around success: There’s no doubt that the first Chow Chow, which included a big three-day presence at Pack Square Park and a constellation of memorable experiences around town, was an overall success. The organization was solid. It went off as planned. The food, as expected, was out-of-this-world fantastic. The local participants were happy (and exhausted). Peter Pollay, a Chow Chow board member and the chef and co-owner of Posana restaurant (and the new Bargello and District 42 inside the Kimpton Hotel Arras), told me the festival was so well-organized that it didn’t even feel like a first-year event.
Attendance and economic impact: An official attendance hasn’t been declared, but Button told me in an interview that Chow Chow sold about 3,000 tickets, which was down from a first-year goal, stated early in the planning, of 5,000 tickets sold. The Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, a significant supporter of the event, is helping Chow Chow organizers pull together an official economic impact calculation. The food fest team will present an after-action report at the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s meeting later this month.
Sponsorships: Chow Chow has a big ace in the hole with the full-throated support of Asheville hotelier John McKibbon, who stepped up with significant sponsorship dollars (the dollar amount hasn’t been declared.) It’s clear he wants it to succeed, and he’s got skin in the game. The festival unfolded at the doorstep of his brand new Kimpton Hotel Arras, and it was held on a weekend in mid-September, considered by local tourism officials as a “shoulder season.” That’s a time between visitation highs and lows that can use a boost. The other big early institutional sponsor was the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, which awarded Chow Chow organizers an initial grant of $75,000, with another $25,000 coming in year two. Stephanie Brown, the president and CEO of Explore Asheville, described Chow Chow “as a top-shelf experience” at the Buncombe TDA’s meeting last month, adding that she heard plenty of “enthusiastic” feedback from attendees. That’s high praise from the TDA, which has mastered the art of marketing Asheville and is always looking for quintessential Asheville experiences to sell to visitors.
The value of exposure: Button told me that Chow Chow festival had an “editorial outreach” of some 97 million hits. I honestly don’t know how they calculate that, but I do know the event got great write-ups from the New York Times, Garden and Gun magazine and a number of other media outlets. That’s a testament to the media relationships built over the years by the Explore Asheville crew, who also invited in a select group of social media influencers and set them up with tickets. That kind of media exposure is incredibly valuable. Paying for that kind of audience reach would cost tens of thousands of dollars in terms of paid advertising.
Branding: Any first-year festival wants to establish a brand and a story that’s relatable to the public. Chow Chow did that well by hammering home the aspect of showing off all the “makers” who come around a table to make an amazing food experience possible. They’ve got a little work to do for next year in paring down the options – there were too many ancillary events outside the “Pickled in the Park” main event this year – but overall I think they succeeded. I think their bigger opportunity lies in branding what some have called “the new Appalachian cuisine.” I’m picking this up from the New York Times festival story, which captured this theme and did a great job of illustrating how Asheville restaurants are already showcasing this kind of cooking. The next step, in my mind, is to nail down the branding so that foodies know they just have to attend Chow Chow food festival in Asheville to experience it.
Ticket prices: I heard a lot of complaints about the $120-a-day ticket price for the Pickled in the Park experience. (Ancillary workshops and events were priced separately.) Discount tickets were sold to Asheville locals for Sunday at the festival, and there was a free makers market adjacent to the main event. But lots of people said that main-event price was just too steep for them. It’s a real conundrum for festival organizers. If they want to put on a quality festival, they’ve got to charge a premium. But there’s no doubt they value a connection to the local community. Building that bridge of accessibility will be an ongoing discussion, Button says.
Nonprofit partnership: Speaking of building that bridge to the community, Chow Chow named MANNA Food Bank as its event partner and handed the nonprofit a check for more than $52,000. An anonymous donor offered up $50,000 of that, with festival goers chipping in the rest. It’s a critical link for the festival, which also donated leftover food to community organizations.
The networking: Another key element of Chow Chow included a handful of gatherings that allowed food industry workers a chance to mix and mingle. Button offered a personal example: she met the folks from The Chemist gin distillery in Asheville for the first time during a festival party. The connection will likely lead to future friendly collaborations, she said. Those kinds of links were being established all festival weekend. They’ll lead to a stronger community, and a stronger festival next year.
The José Andrés effect: There can’t be a festival wrap-up without acknowledging the appearance of one of the most famous chefs in the world, José Andrés, who owns restaurants around the country and is often credited with popularizing Spanish tapas in the U.S. He’s also a friend and mentor of Button and her husband and restaurant partner, Félix Meana. The fact that he showed up for the weekend lent Chow Chow an unmistakable air of credibility and celebrity sparkle. Wow. (He also came directly from the Bahamas, where he and his World Central Kitchen had been feeding survivors of the devastating Hurricane Dorian.)
A new star on the Asheville food scene: This is purely my opinion: I think Chow Chow crowned a new culinary star on the Asheville food scene: Benne on Eagle restaurant. I saw rave review after rave Instagram review of the restaurant. It’s new. It elevates Asheville’s forgotten African-American soul food and places it squarely in the Appalachian food tradition. And it is a concept launched by chef and restaurateur John Fleer, a James Beard Award nominee highly respected for his Southern food creations (and curations). He’s also known as a thoughtful mentor of young chefs. (Formerly of Blackberry Farm, Fleer’s the chef-owner of Rhubarb restaurant in downtown.) Fleer hired Chef Ashleigh Shanti to helm Benne on Eagle, located in the new Foundry Hotel downtown (which is located in a part of Asheville that was once full of African-American owned businesses.) He also has Asheville native Hanan Shabazz, once the chef-owner of a local 1960s-era soul food restaurant, as a culinary advisor. It’s all adding up to delicious food and major recognition. It won’t be a surprise to see the restaurant and its chef collect a James Beard Award nomination or two in February.