Should businesses that serve a local clientele, specifically ones in the outer boroughs catering to a singular immigrant community, participate in large food festivals – who request they give their product away for free?
I’m looking at you: Choice Eats and Yelp
This is the question I have had on my mind: Should I encourage the businesses I work with to do free food give-aways at events?
Participating costs money – not only for product but also for employees, transportation, signage, and the potential shut-down of the main location. This cost plays against the perceived marketing value by showing up at the event and giving people tastes of what you do. For my events, I’ve always tried to bring customers to the restaurants themselves, but it’s possible I’ve been shortsighted. It’s possible fishing in another pond altogether can lead to greater success.
The highest regarded of all restaurant-touting pay-one-price food festivals in New York City is the Village Voice’s Choice Eats. It started in 2008, featuring restaurants largely unheard of, other than being written about in the then-anticipated weekly write-ups from food writer Robert Seitsema. These picks reached deep into subway lines finding obscure standouts that only locals or flavor liberals were aware of.
Every year since has become grander and grander, with less of a percentage of legends from minority neighborhoods. Looking back, participating restaurants of 2008 like Albert’s Mofongo House would seem way too esoteric for today’s eat and greet extravaganza. In 2013, there were four participating restaurants from Queens (same number, but half the percentage of the 2008 event), one from the Bronx and one from Jersey, with a handful of what one might consider ethnic eateries from Brooklyn. This year, there are six restaurants from Queens (Alobar, Bear, John Brown Smokehouse, Ovelia, Queens Comfort, Zenon Taverna), all based in Queens’ most technologically social savvy neighborhoods of Long Island City and Astoria, catering to an even larger population than the neighborhood.
While it was once the Sietsema show of great obscure ethnic eating, Choice Eats has shifted gears to a general celebration of all things popular in the worldly food scene of NYC.
Switching tabs to Yelp:
Yelp has a series of events in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. In each of these boroughs, they conduct about nine events a year inside restaurants providing evenings of eating and imbibing – free of charge – to their Elite members. Once or twice a year they have a larger bash with many restaurants coming in to a common space like the Museum of Moving Image to give away samples of their food. I have always wondered if it was worth it.
I could speculate and talk about it on Facebook all day, but wouldn’t it be better if I made a few calls and email a few emails?
Astoria’s Gregory’s Corner 26 Taverna participated in Choice Eats 2012 and had all good things to say about the event. I even felt a little clumsy during my phone call because I think they thought I was calling to ask them to participate again. When I asked if it was worth it to do, the woman on the phone gave a booming “Of course!” She said they were proud that they gave her a sticker to put in the window, and how some people came all the way from the other boroughs just to visit them here. Business, whatever, it was a fun experience.
This threw me for a bit of a loop. As my first pace of research, I was expecting to hear something like “ehh, no one really came. We wasted our time.” As I thought about their enthusiasm, and even apart from the good time it was being with all these other great restaurants that they probably wouldn’t normally get to converse with, I started opening up that for a local, immigrant-centered restaurant, this could make them a focal point of the neighborhood for outsiders. I always see that people know generally about neighborhoods of immigrants but aren’t sure where to start. They know Astoria has Greeks, Flushing has Chinese, Jackson Heights has Indians, but specifically it can be intimidating. This leads to the constant grueling question locals get asked: Where should I go? Which place is the “best.” This term “best” unconsciously may be synonymous to the term “safe” which may also be unconsciously synonymous to the phrase “welcoming to non-natives.” People who are traveling in don’t want to take chances. The mention by a trusted source or the connection from a live event might be the introduction people need to feel confident walking in t0 the real location. In an area of uncertainty, just one friend will make you feel grounded. Meeting and eating at one of these events could be the creation of a focal point - it creates a friend.
But Choice Eats expects 3000 attendees and over 60 restaurants, plus countless beverage offerers. Would one suffer from turning into a needle in a haystack?
Zenon Taverna participated in 2013 and are again participating in 2014. Representing the omnipresent family running the restaurant, daughter Elena sees it as an opportunity to reach more of their demographic. Choice Eats not only directly appeals to their core audience of 25 to 40-year olds who are not necessarily Greek, but Village Voice also does a lot of advertising for their own event and as a byproduct, Elena’s family’s restaurant.
As a foodie herself, Elena payed attention to what worked and what didn’t in 2013. In order to stand out from the rest, this year she is tailoring her menu to better suit the expected crowd. Last year, they served 1. Meatballs of pork and lamb and 2. Vegan Grape Leaves. She realized that because the grape leaves were listed number 2, a lot of the people assumed they had nothing vegetarian to offer. Also, even though the pork meatballs are their specialty at the restaurant, solely offering the lamb meatballs will be more globally agreeable especially for Kosher or Halal leaning people. Adjusting their aim, they hope to bring in more customers to the restaurant and, even more importantly, increase their business in catering.
Patacon Pisao started out as a local legend in Inwood. A few years ago, they expanded to a local-centric location on Grand Ave in Elmhurst, and now they own a 2nd mobile vending unit (a truck) that mainly operates at festivals. I’ve seen them at Yelp events handing out their cachapas, so I quizzed the business’s progeny, Jonathan, about participating in events like this via email. Here is his text:
Food events are a big factor to the success of our business. We take part in them because it is great to get our product to new demographics as well as food bloggers. Food events have had a big impact on our business because it brings new customers over to new locations. I’m actually opening up a new storefront in the Lower East Side. Reason being because for the past 3 years we have been doing food events and fairs (Grubstreet Fest and Hester Street Fair) down in the Lower East Side and saw there is a demand for our product down there.
As for advice for other business hopping on the food event van wagon, always have more food than everyone else. Also don’t go crazy with the menu keep it simple and showcase why you got invited to the food event in the first place.
Finally, I sent an email over to Scott from JoJu Modern Vietnamese in Elmhurst. If you have been within their social reach, you’ve seen all sorts of ways they interact with their clients to gain a relationship through contests and price specials and questions for their audience. Outreach aside, they are still are a business deep in an Outer Borough catering mostly to locals. Also, they are my spot for Vietnamese coffee.
Here is our email exchange:
(JO in italics) You have done multiple yelp events, so obviously it’s been working out for you. Why do you do it?
Yelp reviews have always been extremely valuable to us. We are very fortunate that our yelpers have been very kind to us. The events are our way to show our appreciation. Many of these Yelp events are specifically targeted for the elites. By creating a good relationship with them, we hope that they will continue support us with their kind words.
What has been the impact on your business?
Although we have not been able to accurately measure the direct impact these events have on us, each one has always managed to bring in at least a few new customers. We think that the referrals from these few new customers, whether personally or from their review posts, can be tremendous.
There are a lot of costs involved, with personnel, transportation, food, etc – do you have any tips for food places doing free events like this?
I think that these events are a good opportunity to introduce a potentially new product that you might want to offer in the near future. Where else can you find such a large focus group, right? But it is also important to have your featured items in addition to your test ones. Guests who have never heard of you still have to know what you do best. As for costs, I think by choosing the right events, the benefits of the marketing aspect of it would outweigh the costs.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Having fun with your staff at these events is essential. I think guests are really good at sensing the synergistic connections of your team, which directly affects how they react to the food you are serving them. Haha…this sounds like a load of crap, but I really do believe in it.
I did this research and analysis because I was thinking of encouraging one of the restaurants I work with (probably Little Tibet) to participate in this event. After further review of the Choice Eats FAQ, though, I see that “Only restaurants featured in the Village Voice are invited to participate in Choice Eats.” – and unfortunately, they have not been reviewed yet. But if they were, I would have encouraged them. Showing well at the event and communicating (beyond handing out food) to non-locals is one anticipated result, but also the press and attention from representing our neighborhood in this highly regarded event would help in the immediate area. In this neighborhood, a lot of locals who are outsiders to the Tibetan community would be intrigued and feel safe that the an NYC-wide publication such as the Village Voice thought them to be worthy. The bread and butter outside Lower Manhattan is usually the people who live in the neighborhood, and for Jackson Heights, the locals>=2nd generation are still looking for an introduction to this cuisine (and many others). I think that from the inclusion and the marketing, many locals would give them a shot. I think it would be worth it for Little Tibet or Gangjong Kitchen to do the event for this reason. Other cultures in other neighborhoods might not be as beneficial, but after further review – and opposing my previous viewpoint – I see the light for some pro-bono events for some niche businesses.
In my own experience, as a team-member for vendors at two Vendy Awards, I changed my perspective of how to work these events. Working with Tortas Neza in 2012, I saw he and his wife working so hard and putting so much money into the day to constantly feed the people (food cost + missed opportunity + gas). At the event, with the 40-plus person line, it became a never-ending duty to feed the people. Tortas was chopping, slicing, grilling as fast as he could to crank out sandwiches, as the attendees were eating and running to the next truck. The Vendy Cup would have been great to win, but when we lost we were totally deflated. So much hard work, and we were clearly the best, but we just didn’t win. Looking back, I realized that we only served food, we didn’t play to his strengths as a showman, a charming man, and a tastebud destroyer. If we would do it again, which I would hesitate to, I’d lobby him to spend more time in front of the truck and make sure that line is nice and long. Forget about feeding the people, just satisfy them with a taste, entertain them, and make them want to come back. For his business in Corona, a place where it’s rare for even foodies to visit, it just doesn’t pay off as regularly as it would in areas where locals are outsiders such as Astoria, Jackson Heights, or Sunset Park – and especially not for a business that doesn’t partake in catering.
As opposed to print ads, participation in these types of events are similar in cost but have much more connection. As I tell most of the food places that I try to help, it’s all about communication. Taste is second to connection - and these events can make a connection. It just might be worth it. For now on, for pro-bono food events, I’m abating the red light, moving on to yellow (go faster, yet cautiously).