How Food Festival Organizers Are Creatively Pivoting in the Midst of a Pandemic

From drive-in theaters to virtual cooking classes, here’s how festivals are adapting.

food festival pivots
Photos: Texas Monthly/NYWFF; Illustration: Grace Han/Thrillist
Photos: Texas Monthly/NYWFF; Illustration: Grace Han/Thrillist

Food festivals can be gaudy. There’s the thrum of a crowd taking in a cooking demonstration with a fiery wok or barbecue pit at its center, lines of hungry patrons that snake around temporary tents and booths, small plates decorated with gold leaf that are perfectly suited for a snapshot on social media. 

Still, food festivals are not just a celebration of indulgence and consumption, but a tribute to communities; whether a festival is centered around a singular style of cooking, or delves into regional specialties, these spaces function as a method of bringing people together to break bread while sharing an experience and meal. It’s an opportunity to try something new.
But in the midst of a global pandemic, with restaurants struggling to maintain consistent clientele or shuttering entirely, how are food festivals faring? Though some have had to completely close down this year, others are finding creative ways of feeding people, raising money for charities, supporting chefs and restaurateurs, and maintaining the robust energy that infiltrates all food festivals. 

Take Family Style Festival, for example. This Los Angeles-based event, which highlights the parallels between exclusive streetwear pieces and coveted bites, was preparing for its second year when the pandemic hit. Instead of shutting down completely, Family Style -- headed by Miles Canares and Ben and Bobby Hundreds of Los Angeles-based streetwear brand, The Hundreds -- pivoted to a drive-in theater concept centered in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. Family Style collaborated with well-known Chinatown staples, like the legendary Yang Chow restaurant, while also working with established up-and-comers like Howlin’ Rays and Alvin Cailan’s Amboy

“It’s less of a food festival per se; we’re really leaning more towards this drive-in theater concept by adding a car hop component,” Canares explained. “But we really just wanted to reconnect with our community and do something fun.” That also includes partnering with long-standing organizations within Chinatown, like Homeboy Industries, Chinatown Service Center, LA City College, and Cathedral High School, for a collaborative T-shirt of which 100% of the proceeds will go towards supporting these orgs. “Chinatown has been such gracious hosts to us,” Canares said. “Because we’re there, we really wanted to be there.”

family style food festival
Family Style Festival

Family Style isn’t the only festival driven by philanthropy. The New York City Wine & Food Festival, which is in its 13th year, has partnered with No Kid Hungry and the Food Bank of New York City since its inception. 

“Most wine and food festivals cancelled this summer. I did not want to lay anyone off, I did not want to furlough anyone. I was committed to that,” Lee Schrager, the founder and director of the festival, explained over a video call. “Most importantly, we were going to continue to raise awareness and funds for No Kid Hungry and the food bank. That was really important to me.”

Going digital when so much of food festivals is experiencing the sights, smells, and tastes is a challenge. The silver lining for Schrager, however, was gathering talent. “We have great chefs. The good part about this, if there’s any good part, is talent was more available to do things than they ever have been,” Schrager mentioned with a laugh. “I’m sitting here and looking at the list of cooking demos: Martha Stewart, Thomas Keller, Yotam Ottolenghi, Morimoto, Rocco DiSpirito, Amanda Freitag. I mean, they normally do the festival but this was a much easier ask: ‘Hey, just stay home and bake a cake, Martha!’”

Over in Texas, Texas Monthly’s 11th annual BBQ Fest also had to shift dramatically to ensure the safety of attendees and vendors. The event is no longer limited to a mere weekend, but instead is nine days long with an At-Home BBQ Box that attendees can purchase so they can still partake in all the delicious barbecue available across the state without having to leave their homes.

“The motivation to carry on this tradition is to be there for our community and to bring people the joy of barbecue during this difficult time. It was also a priority for us to create an experience that would support Texas BBQ joints,” Jacki Brinker Buchan, the director of events and project management at Texas Monthly, relayed via email. “While we may not be able to shake Tootsie’s hand, try a new side from PODY’s, or discuss barbecue techniques with Tyler Frazer this year, we do hope our audience will still feel connected to the BBQ community through these new experiences.”

"What we are experiencing is not normal, and we need each other now more than ever."

For Gina Rosales, the co-founder and event producer of Undiscovered -- a night market that celebrates Filipino food, culture, and art -- the need to continue the festival, even in a virtual space, was also motivated by the desire to support her community and provide a place where Filipinos across the globe can connect. “I’m hoping people feel like they can still be in community with each other and feel some sort of joy and sanity during this crazy time,” Rosales remarked. “What we are experiencing is not normal, and we need each other now more than ever.”

Undiscovered, which was typically held in San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural District, will be going fully virtual from October 17-18. Instead of focusing solely on food, the festival will have panels devoted to music, art, fashion, and entrepreneurship within the Filipino community. “I’m hoping that people feel like they’re a part of a bigger community of Filipinos in the diaspora,” Rosales said. “Being Fil-Am is powerful and unique, but we can also find our commonalities with Filipinos in other parts of the world. We want to connect all these people and have them see each other as community, as kapwa.”

wine and food festival

Then there’s Blaktober, a food festival debuting this October in the middle of the pandemic. “Originally, Blaktober was going to be a celebration of Black-owned restaurants all month by offering specials and a food festival to kick off,” Jeremy Joyce, the founder of Black People Eats, explained. When the pandemic struck, the idea of an in-person food festival was scrapped, while the hunger to support Black-owned businesses grew stronger. Sure, there were challenges of creating an entirely new event for the first time with the weight of the pandemic present. But Joyce persisted. 

Blaktober will feature cooking demonstrations, an e-book with recipes from chefs, and workout classes -- a foil to this tribute to food. But at its core, Blaktober is about raising awareness for Black-owned restaurants. And even without in-person festivities, Joyce promises that, “This experience will be unforgettable.”

Though restaurants continue to struggle as the pandemic keeps us indoors and socially distanced, independently owned mom-and-pop shops aren't giving up -- and neither are the food festivals that support them.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn