Event Notes: Breaking down the 2014 South Beach Wine and Food Festival

Photo: Tomas Loewy

The South Beach Wine and Food Festival is such a well-oiled machine — from the chefs who prepare thousands of portions of food to the Florida International University student volunteers who do much of the heavy lifting — that by the time it rolls around each February, organizers are already planning for the next year.

And what a machine it is.

Some 60,000 attendees guzzled, gnawed and gulped their way through this year’s four-day fest, which ran through Sunday and included more than 70 ticketed events. The production numbers are staggering:

2.4 miles of plastic wrap for Thursday’s The Q, enough to cover the length of Miami International Airport’s main runway.

80 pounds of garlic for The Q, the weight of two average 4-year-olds.

8,500 lbs of ground meat for Friday’s Burger Bash, roughly the weight of three and a half Mini Coopers.

275 gallons of frying oil for Saturday’s Chicken Coupe, containing a whopping 985,600 grams of fat. 

2,200 lbs of pork
for Sunday’s Swine & Wine, including 18 whole hogs plus individual cuts.

Festival organizers did an outstanding job of putting all that product into the right hands. Of the events I attended, Friday’s Best of the Best at the Fontainebleau was the clear winner. (You can find my Top 10 favorite bites here: http://www.miami.com/10-best-dishes-2014-south-beach-wine-and-food-festival-article)

Some grumbled that the festival no longer shines enough of a spotlight on Miami chefs. But of the 200-odd chefs and food personalities who appeared this year, at least 85 cook full-time in South Florida cooks or oversee restaurants here. 

Other things that stood out to me:

Social media was well integrated into the fest, with chef and restaurant Twitter and Facebook handles prominently displayed at their stations.

Food variety at the tasting tents was better than it was last year, when it seemed like every other station was serving ceviche or tacos.

A Popeyes chicken nugget I can’t get out of my head: Festival head honcho Lee Schrager expressed his love for the chain’s chicken during a Sunday seminar to promote his upcoming book, Fried and True, with food writer Adeena Sussman. In their research, Schrager and Sussman revealed, they discovered that Popeyes franchisees are mandated to marinate their chicken in a secret blend of herbs and spices for at least 12 hours, but they are allowed to let the birds marinate for up to 48 hours. As a result, spice and heat level varies from store to store. Who knew?

As with any machine, the 13th annual Wine & Food Festival had some parts that showed their age this year.

If festival organizers are serious about planning now for the 2015 festival — and they ought to be, with average ticket prices costing a squid arm and a goat leg — here are some things for them to consider:

The Grand Tasting Village is a mess. But it can be fixed.

1. Organizers must sell fewer tickets (or, harder to swallow, increase prices). The crowds are unbearable, and the lines are ridiculous. I saw a man throw a tantrum because he thought he waited too long at the Sysco station. I saw a chef swat at the hand of a tipsy guest who was grabbing at unfinished plates of food. A little more breathing room would result in an improved experience for all.

2. Give people a place to go. There was a dearth of high-top tables or other places to enjoy your samples. As a result, people waited and waited to get food, then when they got it, they planted their feet and ate it. This causes severe backups. Simple signage directing people to grab their plates and move out of the way would help keep things flowing.  

3. Mix it up. From the rum bar to the Goya stand to the Barilla tent, everything was in the exact same place it was last year. Not a big deal for first-time attendees, but the festival draws tons of repeat guests who, I’m sure, would appreciate some layout variety.

4. Cool it down. Man, it was hot out there. The sand-between-your-toes thing is pleasant after the sun goes down, part of the reason events like The Q and Burger Bash are such perennial favorites. But during day, when the sun is baking down, being under the tasting tents can make you feel like an oven-dried tomato: red and sweaty at first, shriveled and dehydrated in a few hours. Here’s the thing, the fest has the cash to invest in air-conditioned tents, like the ones used for Design Miami during Art Basel. Not everything has to be swathed in A/C, just the actual tasting tents, so people will still get to soak in sun while visiting the demo tents or chilling at the Cruzan bar. Doing so would make the logistics of cooking outside easier, and it would vastly improve the overall experience.

Where is the water? There is no better way to ensure rapid, severe drunkenness at boozy events than to make people search high and low for aqua. While the Grand Tasting Village had more free water than a FEMA disaster-response team, water was hard to find at big events like the Best of the Best, The Flaunt, and Swine & Wine. 

Where is the beer? We get it. It’s the *Wine* and Food Festival, sponsored in large part by Southern *Wine* and Spirits. Another sponsor, Amstel, owned by Dutch beer behemoth Heineken, holds a tight monopoly on the festival’s beer component, ensuring it’s the only brand you’ll see.

Craft beer is the hottest thing in the beverage industry and has been for several years. Southern and the festival’s other sponsors must get up to speed, for the sake of festival attendees, and bring on competitors like Brown Distributing, Gold Coast Beverage and other craft beer wholesalers to make good beer part of the party.
Evan Benn covers the economy and reviews restaurants and craft beer for the Miami Herald. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanBenn.