How Coachella’s Food Became Just as Important as Its Music
This year, as some 125,000 people descend on Indio, California's Empire Polo Club for the 20th year of Coachella, fans won’t just be clamoring to get to the front of the stage for sets from headliners like Ariana Grande and the flute-twerking of Lizzo: the multinational horde will also be lining up for food from renowned chefs like David Chang and Top Chef finalist Bruce Kalman.
Other hungry attendees will sit in the VIP Rose Garden, eating high-end, family-style Outstanding in The Field dinners from a crew of chefs that change weekend-to-weekend. This year they include James Beard winner Jessica Largey and the crew from the acclaimed San Francisco bakery-and-more Tartine and its sister LA location The Manufactory; as well as Broken Spanish’s Ray Garcia and Border Grill’s Susan Feniger & Mary Sue Milliken making the hundreds-of-dollars up-charge for the dinners worth the spend. For food-minded people, these are some of the real headliners of Coachella -- but it wasn’t always like this. In fact, for over 10 years of the festival’s existence, these name-brand vendors weren’t part of the festival’s landscape at all. In fact, food used to be the forgotten act at the popular California music festival.
Ben Wener -- the former music editor of the Orange County Register -- has been to every year of Coachella, and he recalls that for nearly the first decade, all the options were fried-and-fast food that used to be a staple at most all-day fests, Coachella included. “My memory dive recalls only the usual suspects,” he says. “[still-standing fest favorite pizza from] Spicy Pie, and those standard Chinese stands and burger grills that have been at festivals forever.”
The festival managed on those basics for until 2010, when the food-truck craze caught on, the organizers brought in a couple of vendors for VIP, including Green Truck, and the hottest kid on the block, Kogi. “Everyone loved us, including whoever was in charge of Coachella at the time,” says founder Roy Choi. “We didn’t plan too much. Just loaded up like we would for a busy night on the streets, then headed to the desert.”
Though the food trucks would end up on the festival grounds a couple years later for everyone to enjoy, it was in fact, a vegan festival-goer, bemused at his lack of options on the field, that would end-up turning the food program at the festival on its head. In 2013, longtime Coachella-goer and music-biz lifer Nic Adler was working on a deal with
Coachella promoters Goldenvoice around the Roxy Theater, and was at a football game with Goldenvoice founder Paul Tollett, talking about the then-burgeoning craft-beer movement (Adler had recently founded the Eat Drink Vegan festival, which had a killer beer component.) “I couldn’t help but to jump in with what I thought of the food program [at Coachella],” Adler recalls. “It wasn’t that the food at Coachella sucked -- it was that the food at Coachella could be so great. And it wasn’t.”
Adler mentioned San Francisco’s Outside Lands fest to Tollett, which had already been leading the way in the festival world with a curated food program; Tollett told Adler to put together a loose plan. “By no means was I auditioning for a job or thinking I’d get something out of this,” he says. The next day, he went to the Goldenvoice offices for a meeting. Adler has been the Culinary Director for Coachella ever since.
In 2014, under Adler’s tutelage, the new food program at Coachella launched; like many large projects, it wasn’t all smooth sailing initially. Some vendors had a hard time educating frazzled festival-goers on their higher-end food and packed up and left between weekend one and weekend two, leaving a few empty stalls on the field -- and a number of disgruntled vendors at large. Adler takes some of the responsibility for those fails. “I over-promised and under-delivered,” he says. “In the chef world, that’s one of the worst things you can do.”
“Someone’s looking around the field and looking at what to eat, and they see [a sign for acclaimed vegan restaurant] Crossroads. In their mind, what does that mean? That’s not a type of food. But right next to that is a sign that says 'burgers' or 'tacos,'" explains Alder with a sigh. “It took a couple years to figure out.”
But the wins in those early years far outweighed the losses. Brands that initially seemed ridiculous as festival food options ended up making huge splashes, such as Kazunori, the hand roll chain from the Sugarfish team that got its start as a VIP-only kiosk and now is an undeniable festival favorite. “[The VIP section] became our incubator,” Adler says, noting that in recent years that idea of discovery has successfully transitioned into the main food hall, the massive, midfield, tented Indio Central Market.
Concurrently in 2014, the Outstanding in the Field program launched at Coachella -- another unlikely success, given both the price (tickets for the dinners are a $225 add-on or are sold as packages including tickets) and the location: though the stages have moved around since then, as the dinners launched they were just meters from the Sahara tent -- the loud, rave-like structure that is one of Coachella’s most party-heavy spots.
“They’ve learned a lot over the years,” laughs Sotto and Rossoblu chef Steve Samson, who cooked at the first Outstanding in the Field and has returned since. “The first year they had no control over, like, [chefs] getting into the venue.” His first dinner was met with a sandstorm; Samson just plowed through. “Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment.”
So is the Coachella team: in the years since, they’ve launched everything from craft beer gardens, to secret menus, to the aforementioned Indio Central Market to a much-hyped (but hidden) tiny tiki bar. This year, they’ll be introducing Postmates to the field: the delivery app has 10 partner vendors prepping off-site, with festival-goers able to order from their phones and pick up food on the fly. “This year, again, is changing the way that people experience food at Coachella,” says Adler.
Thankfully these days, things run much more smoothly than those early years, and Adler and his team spend a ton of time correcting on the fly. “We’re dealing with so many people, so [decision making] gets sped up,” he says. “We have the data of two weekends of 250,000 people. What do they really like? There’s some really good feedback we can take from that.”
One major piece of that feedback the Coachella team has received is that people still love tradition and nostalgia when it comes to food. Although the newer and more high-profile vendors get an enormous amount of attention, the fact of the matter is that most of the food on the field comes from those old-school festival standbys. “25%-35% of the vendors are curated and well-known names, but the majority is the food that people want,” Adler says. “People will wait all year to eat crab fries at 10pm. The same goes for Spicy Pie. The same goes for the lemonade guy.”
The same goes for Roy Choi, too: this year, he’ll be back on the field with “Kogitown World,” serving up his classic dishes from a stall. “Back then, we came through the back door,” he says. “Now, we are smashing through the front door.”
And Spicy Pie? They’re still thriving on the field. “Coachella is something we look forward to every year,” says owner Michael Girard, whose event-only pizza company serves fans at dozens of music festivals every year. “It’s one of the greatest shows anywhere. It’s extremely important that we perform and are part of -- and blessed -- to be a part of the show.”
It’s something that Adler doesn’t lose sight of as well. “For food to be put on par and the production level to be at the size of the biggest music tents -- it was a gamble.” He pauses. “It was a gamble -- but it was something that really worked.”