FOOD AND BEVERAGE

What It's Really Like to Work at Coachella

Music festivals are big business, but not everyone cashes in. Food vendors reveal what it takes to serve the sweaty masses and come out ahead.
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Ever since Coachella exploded onto Indio, California in 1999, the live music landscape has experienced a proliferation of festivals large and small. There are far too many to list here, but rest assured nearly every state has acquired its own version of Coachella since the turn of the millennium, from jam band-friendly Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, to Texas' long-running Austin City Limits, which doubles as a televised special. 

Beyond the music, these festivals stand out for their adventurous assortment of food vendors. This year Shawna Dawson, whose pop-up community event, Artisanal LA, is a SoCal institution, created the artisanal market for this past April's installment of Coachella, selecting purveyors of mango chili-flavored cotton candy, Northern Baja-style tacos, and blueberry lemonade. "We were specifically looking at talent to bring to the marketplace that would feel like a mini Artisinal LA at Coachella," she tells Inc. "A lot of time was spent on bringing in the right vendors who'd be appealing to festivalgoers, were at the right stage in their business, and could support this type of volume." 

Here, a few of those vendors--along with veterans of Bonnaroo, Governor's Ball in New York City, and Austin City Limits--share their experiences and lend some insight into whether the festival circuit is a worthwhile endeavor for a small food business. 

Salt & Straw

"We're expanding from Portland to L.A. this summer, so it was a cool opportunity to introduce ourselves to more people there," says Kim Malik, the artisanal ice cream maker's founder. Although she admits Coachella "wasn't a big business endeavor," the trip itself was enjoyable. "We had eight people working each weekend, and five stayed the whole week in an RV pretty much the entire time. It felt like a Real World episode." That said, it did cost the company thousands of dollars. "We had to rent a freezer truck and fly these people down," she says. "It was a big deal for our little company to do all that."

Bon Puf

"I only do private events in SoCal and the Los Angeles area," says Bon Puf owner Cloe Lane, "so I really had no idea what I was getting myself into."

Cloe Lane had never attended Coachella, but the 20-year-old Angeleno was intrigued by how it might bolster her resume. "I was like, 'Let's bring every flavor we have!,' and that was a huge mistake. Someone who comes by just wants cotton candy. They don't care that we have seven flavors." Though she didn't know what to expect when she got there, "it was great to see people delighted by our flavors," which ranged from mango chili to chai tea. "Coachella gets a bad rap, but working the event day-to-day was a lot of fun," she says. "If I were to do it again, I feel like I'd have a better sense of how to go about it. We would do even better."

Crazy Go Nuts!

Dave Wolfe won't reveal what he earned at Coachella--"more than $10,000 and less than $15,000," he says--but as a six-month-old business, "the experience was a lot of fun." To his surprise, the majority of his revenue came from sodas, water, and energy drinks. "Once we realized that it was going to be about selling drinks, my girlfriend made eight different signs to draw people to our booth," Wolfe says. Meanwhile, "I was out in the middle of the field telling people to come taste our nuts. I ended up getting in a newspaper article because of that. Anytime you get a chance to expose your product to eyes, whether they're drunk or high, it makes sense."

The Big Cheese

At Bonnaroo, perhaps the biggest challenge Patrick Rathbone faced was being short-staffed. "We needed five people per show," says the Washington D.C.-based food truck owner. "There's just so much going on all the time and people are just milling about." The festival was a big moneymaker for the entrepreneur, despite the organizers' 30 percent cut and Tennessee's 9.75 percent sales tax. And thankfully, the unused sandwiches stayed fresh so long as they were refrigerated. "We took them to the Firefly festival after that and sold them first," Rathbone says. The prep work was a headache, however. "You need pop-up tents, power cords, water hoses, and other stuff you just wouldn't need if you were a food truck rolling around the city."

"The only freedom we have is our price and how we cook our food," says Mexicali Taco & Co. co-founder Paul Yoo. "Hopefully everyone is making money."

Mexicali Taco & Co.

"The first weekend was just crazy," Mexicali Taco & Co. co-founder Paul Yoo says of working both weekends at Coachella this year. At first, his team was overwhelmed by the crowds in the general section. "It was kids with rolled up dollar bills and all the vendors were marking up prices," he says. But things got easier the following weekend, when they were stationed in the VIP section. "People were taking out wads of twenties" and the crowds were easier to deal with. Unfortunately, the planning and prep work was grueling. "Coming from L.A., we basically had to prepare all our storage for the perishable or non-perishable items because it's a three-day event consecutively," Yoo explains. "We got up at 7 a.m. to load everything up, and on Friday we closed at 11 p.m., then cleaned up until 12:30. I went to sleep at 3 a.m., then repeated the same thing for two days in a row. It's a big grind." 

Daily Juice

Chief executive and co-founder John Martin had no problem selling out of his juices at Austin City Limits. He's been the event's exclusive juice vendor since 2011 and customers love it. "We enjoy how we run it and make money there. It's certainly not a loss leader for us." Of course, it doesn't hurt that the juices, priced at $6 for a 16-ounce bottle, come in tantalizing flavors like hibiscus lemonade and watermelon aquafresca. "We also offer an iced mate, which is a much better form of caffeine than coffee or tea," Martin boasts. Another advantage was having less prep work. "It takes about half a day before the festival," he says. And when it's time to go home? Breakdown only takes three hours at most.

"It's massive for us, just the exposure and multimedia component," Coolhaus CEO Natasha Case says of Governor's Ball. "Other brands' executives see how long the line is. Plus, it resonates with an audience on the pulse of culture and adventurous eating."

Viva! Vegetarian Grill

The Sasquatch music festival had been on Dave Wagenheim's radar for years, but this year he finally went for it. "I brought about as much as I felt my food truck could handle," says the eight-year-old company's founder, who's based in Eugene, Oregon. "Out in Central Washington, there's really nothing to stock up with." Luckily the endeavor was profitable, though he admits he hasn't seen much of an uptick in business since the end of the festival. "It was good for the resume," he says. "If I wanted to do Coachella next year, my chances of getting in would be much higher."

Coolhaus 

Doing a festival like Governor's Ball isn't just powerful for marketing, "it's the kind of thing your staff can feel good about," says Coolhaus CEO Natasha Case. Prior to setting up, she held a staff meeting to go over procedures and load the refrigerated truck with gourmet ice cream sandwiches. She says she found the biggest challenges were "the volume, because you may not be able to hold all the inventory you need," as well as managing the team remotely. "People can forget the basic procedures for filling out checklists and you can panic," she says. But having a captive audience is a good thing. "We do great financially at that event. I'd say we planned to make about $4,000 to $5,000 per day." 

IMAGES: Getty Images, Cloe Lane, Paul Yoo/Mexicali Taco & Co., COOLHAUS
Last updated: Jun 27, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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