Food festivals have skyrocketed in popularity, often drawing thousands of guests and creating prime exposure opportunities for restaurants of all types. Any opportunity like this, of course, comes with a cost…several costs, actually. The challenge comes with knowing when to take the plunge and sign your restaurant up as a food festival vendor. 

A food festival is essentially a great way to get prospective guests to sample your restaurant, and for the most part, you will profit if enough of those guests visit your restaurant later on. Take the following items into account when assessing the potential return of participating in a food festival.

Understand the costs for food festival vendors.

To establish a baseline for profitability, it’s best to understand all the costs that typically go into participating in a food festival. Exact labels and prices vary, but expect the following:

• Vendor fee: a flat fee to simply have a booth space

• Ingredients

• Plates/bowls, utensils, napkins and serving tools

• Cooking equipment and food storage

• Power generation

• Staffing

• Signage as well as any additional elements you may want at your booth, such as menus,  decorations, photo booths, etc.

• Vehicle(s) to transport ingredients, cooking equipment, signage and staff

• Insurance

Festivals will outline some of these costs, such as vendor fees, but most of these costs will be for you to calculate. Factor in setup, execution and takedown, and always bring more ingredients than you think you’ll need. Nobody wants to run out of food at a festival.

Once you have a dollar amount calculated, compare this to your average profit per guest, and determine how many new people the festival would need to bring in to make it worth your while.

Compare target customers and restaurant profiles.

Food festivals, by definition, attract foodies that are ready and willing to try new places such as yours. It’s necessary, however, to take a closer look at the expected attendee and restaurant profiles and compare that to your typical guest and competitive set.

If the food festival has taken place in the past, look at the list of restaurants that attended in previous years, and whether any shifts occurred. If you own a casual burger bar and notice that most participating restaurants are higher-end, then the festival may not be a good fit. If the festival has a particular theme, such as vegetarian, and your menu doesn’t have significant offerings in that theme, then best to pass on the opportunity. 

If the festival attracts a mostly-local crowd, you likely won’t want to participate unless you’re in the neighborhood. 

Have the time, budget and labor available.

Once you’ve assessed the costs and determined that the festival is a fit, lay out a plan to cover yourself financially and operationally. Designate the staff needed for the event—you’ll likely need several back-of-house staff to cook and at least two front-of-house staff to serve and converse with guests. Extra hands for setup and takedown always help, so plan for additional staff to come before and after the festival, if possible.

Meet with your designated staff well before the event to walk them through expectations. Map out every touchpoint, from loading materials to booth setup, food prep and presentation, guest-facing talking points and takedown. Scout the site beforehand, if possible, so staff know the route for efficient delivery and setup on the event day.

Set up emergency procedures, from small incidents like running out of food to larger issues such as cooking equipment failures or kitchen injuries. If your restaurant is nearby, it’s always good to have additional staff on call and/or the opportunity to deliver finished product straight from your kitchen.

Have food and a setup that will leave an impression.

Every restaurant wants to put their best foot forward at a food festival. Choose a menu item that will ‘wow’ your guests. If you’re already putting in the time, effort and money toward a festival, you don’t want to be stingy with ingredient costs.

Your booth should give guests a great taste of your restaurant’s atmosphere as well. If you have a wall-size chalkboard displaying your specials, then perhaps a small propped-up chalkboard with your featured items would make a nice touch. If you’re known for seafood, then some ocean décor would add positive flare.

While you’ll be doing your due diligence in assessing the return from a food festival, remember that the returns may be long-term. Providing discounts for follow-up visits certainly help, but food festivals are about exposure more than anything. Let your food and booth speak for itself, and success will likely follow.