Arbitrary Food

Arbitrary: How Not to Suck at Running a Food Festival Booth

How Not to Suck at Running a Food Festival Booth
Now that Taste of Edmonton is over for another year, vendors might want start thinking about how to make their booth better for the next festival.

It’s been a while since I was last at Taste of Edmonton. Having been in Calgary for the past few years (and now joyfully back in E-town, thank you very much), I’ve been out of the loop on Edmonton’s food festival developments, though I’m under the impression that efforts have been made to make it better and tweak things to improve the experience.

And yet, based on my impressions from a couple of lunch-hour visits, it’s still got a ways to go. Here’s the thing: for all the changes to the event itself, the greatest strength of a food festival can also be its greatest weakness: some vendors get it, and some don’t.

For those restaurants who clearly don’t understand why showing up may do more harm to their business than good, here’s a list of pointers for next year. Take them to heart, or choose to ignore them. Your call.

Think Long Game: Your food festival booth should be an introduction to your restaurant for people who may never have heard of you. Think basic décor and signage, but also about how to convert tire-kicking samplers at the festival to regular customers. Smart restaurants hand out good coupons, and not 5% off an appetizer garbage. Give people who like what they try a reason to show up for more. Which brings us to …

Prices Matter: At one booth, a sad tray of samosas sat under a plastic canopy, waiting for someone, anyone, to buy them. I can buy samosas everywhere, and none of them cost the nearly $4 these things did. Did I mention that nobody was buying them? Pricing matters as much at food festivals as it does in restaurants. The value proposition is always a bit different at food festivals (people expect it to be a bit pricey, and arguably love complaining about how expensive everything is as much as they love the sampling itself), but people who choose to attend hate feeling utterly ripped off. This is an exercise in marketing your restaurant to the wider community, not a cash-grab.

Pick a Signature Dish: Choose a dish that you’re proud of at your restaurant. Something that you think will intrigue people, catch their interest and show them that you care about the food you make. You want them to love it enough to come to your restaurant for more, and you want your dish to be memorable enough that when they tell their friends that they hit the festival for lunch, they’ll mention your dish instead of the other five things they tried.

Don’t Experiment: This is not the time or place to try a new dish that you’ve got no experience with. I tried a chicken slider at this year’s festival that was awful, from the wrinkly bun to the meat’s seasoning and texture to the sauces to the limp toppings. Lord knows what they were thinking.

Visuals Sell: Either have a physical model of what your dish and serving size looks like, or have a decent photo that shows what it looks like. A visual cue draws people in and answers a bunch of their questions without the vendor having to say a word.

Presentation Counts: Want to get some free publicity for your booth? Go the distance on presentation. People will be milling around eating your dish, and if something looks amazing, people will ask others where they got it, or consult their menus to figure out what the hell it is. A careful drizzle of sauce, the thoughtful pairing of colours, a generous portion size, etc. – all count when you’re competing with several dozen other vendors for food tickets and future restaurant customers.

Can You Make it on a Camp Stove: Well, not quite a camp stove, but think about how you’re going to actually make this dish over and over again in a very limited amount of space, with a very limited number of tools. Choose a dish that can be largely prepped beforehand, but that requires just enough finishing at the end to make sure it’s going to taste fresh. Be careful about which corners you cut, and make sure you can make a whole lot of the thing quickly enough to keep up with surges in demand.

Remember the Weakest Link: Can the dimmest cook in your kitchen make the dish while being distracted by oddball customer questions and angry wasps? Good, because sometimes you can’t spare your A-team to man the booth all day for a week and a half.

Don’t Be Surly: This is your chance to make an impression with people who may never have been to your restaurant before. Make sure anyone working at your booth looks clean, is friendly and can answer questions about both the restaurant and the food. There are a lot of brilliant chefs who should never interact with the public. Best leave them back at the restaurant and bring staff that are as comfortable interacting with other human beings as they are with saucepans.

Time to Prepare: How long will it take you to prepare a dish? If you run out after a rush, how long will it take you to make a new batch? At this year’s Taste of Edmonton, someone told me they’d run out and wouldn’t have more for 10 minutes. That’s crazy. People on an office lunch break aren’t coming back to your booth 10 minutes later. Realistically, if they have to wait two minutes, they’re going elsewhere unless they REALLY want your dish. Don’t make things hard for customers.

Did I miss anything? Leave a comment, maybe?


  1. WOW. this should be shared with all restaurants or anyone thinking of trying to cook for the masses. people often don’t think of all the little details that can make or break you in this environment.

    Great Read.

    • Thanks! I’ve long been fascinated by the strange divide between people who want to run a restaurant, and people who know what it means to run a restaurant. It’s a business full of dreamers, and plenty of great restaurants die young while mediocre ones survive for decades due simply to the practical attitude of the folks running the place. 🙂 Food festivals are a great opportunity to quickly figure out who gets it and who doesn’t.