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Can Bonnaroo's Creators Build an Epic Foodie Festival?

It's the first year the Great Googamooga festival in Brooklyn puts the spotlight on dozens of local chefs and craft food-and-drink makers. If "food is the new rock," it's also really big business.
Superfly co-founder Jonathan Mayers.

Danny Clinch

Superfly co-founder Jonathan Mayers.

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Brooklyn has been gaining a national reputation as a foodie Valhalla, depicted on magazine covers and in travel magazines as a hot destination for those with a hunger for everything from locally sourced barbecue to pickled smoked okra to single-origin fair-trade coffee. But never before has that scene been on display in one quite so big place all at the same time. On May 19 and 20, Superfly, the organizing group behind the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands festivals, present the first Great Googamooga festival in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

Not only are several superstar chefs "headlining" the event, but musical acts such as Hall & Oates and The Roots were announced well after the lineup of participating restaurants. In essence, what Bonnaroo did for jam bands, The Great Googamooga is hoping to do for the likes of artisanal, locally made...jams. The event will feature 75 food vendors, 100 wines, and 30 beers in several different food-themed pavilions. Free tickets "sold out" almost immediately in late April; everyone else must pay $250 for admission. We spoke with Superfly co-founder Jonathan Mayers about he's helping festivals move into the artisanal food age.

Where did the idea to do a food-centric festival come from? 
We do some other major events, such as Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, which is held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It is primarily a music festival, but we really integrated a strong food-and-wine component, featuring some of the best restaurants from the Bay Area. We created a whole wine experience; we went on to create a whole chocolate experience. We do things that we love. That's why we pursued music. In a same way we love food, we love great wine and learning about it, and craft beer. It was a total hit. From there we got really inspired. Like music, food is something that brings us together. And like the musicians that we feature, the chefs, the purveyors, the wine makers, the beer makers—they themselves are artists. What if we kind of change the proportions and made food and drink at the forefront of the programming? We'd have music, have design, have comedy to support it, and so that's what we did.

So is that the basis for the "food is the new rock" idea you've been using to promote it?
Music, that's a creative platform. Being a chef, that's a creative platform. It's using a different vehicle, but these are all creative people. People are going to restaurants like they'd go to rock shows. And they're following chefs like they're following musicians. And so we wanted to celebrate that.

Brooklyn has gotten a lot of attention lately for this super-twee, artisanal-food movement that's encompassing everything from foie gras donuts to small-batch gourmet mayonnaise. How important was it to tap into that scene?
I think it goes beyond Brooklyn, but in Brooklyn there's such a concentration of it. It's people getting involved, and people are passionate about it. Hopefully, we're going to create a platform to help celebrate that and raise awareness for it and create a place where people can discover all these great artisanal food makers. We're going to have a whole marketplace on site, feature some of the best artisanal food makers out there in the community.

How did restaurant owners and chefs react when you came to them with this grand idea?
They were excited that we were coming from a fresh perspective. Our background is in doing these major events, but we're applying it now to the food and drink space. The reaction I got was really great buy in and excitement. I think people are ready to see the crossing of the worlds of music and the culinary space and the comic and the design worlds. Most of the folks that we wanted to be part of it this year said yes.

Your corporate partners include Whole Foods, Seamless, Lexus, and Yelp. What's their role in the business side of things?
To put on an event like this, sponsorship is a part of the revenue model and making it feasible. We have an in-house sales team; we do it for all of our events because we really take a creative approach to integrating brands where it adds value for the festivalgoers. We go out there and we select partners that we think are aligned with our brand and we can integrate it. We don't just slap banners out there.

Are you worried some people will come to this thing and just want a hot dog and soda while they listen to Hall and Oates, not an $8 sampler plate?
We introduced the brand with the focus really being about the chefs and the wine and the beer, that being at the forefront. We just recently announced the music. We had an on-sale before we announced the music and went through a lot of tickets with that. People are buying into the concept. People that love music love food and hopefully if you bring someone in because of a specific artist, maybe they get turned on to a great restaurant.

Bonnaroo is entering its 11th year this summer. How have you seen the business of music festivals change in that time?
There are more and more of them. You have to have a strong offering, and if it's a music festival, a strong line-up. But what is creating the personality? What makes it unique? I really believe the festivals are greater than any of the individual parts. It's about aggregating all of these things; it's about the experience.

The free tickets all were snatched up in a matter of minutes. Yet you've got tons of advertising still out there on subway platforms and in online campaigns. What's the thinking behind the campaign?
This is more than just creating just the event. It's about establishing the brand and the point of view and the personality of the brand. That's why we got great participation from the chefs and restaurants: This is more than just about the event as a marketing resource for those participants. We want to have an ongoing relationship

How much guidance are you giving the restaurants in terms of how to present their food?
It's like how we work with the artists and the bands: We have a different representative work with each restaurants and talk about restaurant options, price points, really being hands-on because we're taking a lot of restaurants that have never done this type of thing, and not on this scale. The creative decision of what they're going to serve we leave up to that particular restaurant.

So is this the future of music festivals? Will we see Bonnaroo offering up more artisanal food experiences?
Yeah, I think so because when I think about these events, whether it's Bonnaroo or Outside Lands or Googamooga, it's the attention to detail, its what you eat, it's the music, its how you're treated. So every year at Bonnaroo, we're looking at "how can we make this better?" We definitely plan to continue to integrate those elements into our other events.

What's on your must-see list for the festival?
I'm definitely going to sample a lot of different things. Listening to Hall & Oates, eating a lobster roll, drinking some good wine. For me its just about seeing it all come together and seeing people enjoy the work that we've been planning for over a couple years now, seeing it come to life and hopefully take on a life of its own.

IMAGE: WordRidden via Flickr
Last updated: May 7, 2012

TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor

Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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