Photo by Laura Martin.

Food Festivals Are the New Music Festivals

From viral pizza parties to chicken nugget festivals, Instagrammable food events are filling a gap in the market for experience-seeking millennials.

|
05 March 2018, 4:29pm

Photo by Laura Martin.

You’ll hear about it first on Facebook. The event, usually set up by an unknown company, appears out of the blue on your social media feed. It might be framed around one ingredient—bacon, cheese, or chili—or it could be a dish, like pho, or a cuisine, like Italian. Next, the event goes viral, gaining thousands of likes, retweets, or people clicked “attending.” Eventually, the social media hype results in excited news pieces from publications like Metro, the Evening Standard, and Cosmopolitan, usually with a clickable headline like, “A Chicken Nugget Festival is Happening This Summer, So Pass Me the Ketchup.” The venue isn’t confirmed and you won’t be able to buy tickets yet, but one thing is clear: people fucking love food festivals.

Whether in Leeds or London, vegetarian food or a bacon covered rib-fest, we’ve become obsessed with the modern food event—one aimed mainly at those aged 25 to 34, with a music festival vibe and a strong social media aesthetic. Data from Food Festival Finder, a website directory for food festivals, shows that in 2015, 25.4 million people wanted to attend food festivals in the UK, compared to the 30 million people who attended music festivals in 2017. The same data shows that while food and drink events were mainly attended by those aged 45 and above in the past, today's events attract a much wider demographic. But why?

At a time when wages aren’t rising and property prices range from absurd to I-can’t-even-comprehend-that-level-of-money, millennials in particular have developed a hunger for the food fest. I mean, when you can’t ever hope to own a semi-detached in Leytonstone, why not spend £40 on a ticket to a ramen event? Unlike generations before them, young people are buying into the experience economy: the concept that engaging in exciting activities holds more value than objects, like a car or house. Indeed, research from the Harris Academy and Eventbrite show that 78 percent of millennials would rather spend money on a “desirable experience” than “something desirable.”

The shift toward experiences and away from “stuff” isn’t the only thing fuelling our appetite for the food fest. As we define ourselves more and more by social media, a picture of a dripping wagyu burger on a sunny rooftop, or a selfie holding a plate of vegan mac ‘n’ cheese with the caption, “I can’t brie-lieve it’s not cheese!!” has more social capital than a second hand Ford Fiesta. As a result, we’re spending our money on the things that hold the most experiential and aesthetic value: not property (unrealistic), or “things” (boring), but the highly Instagrammable food event.

Photo via Flickr user Mark Pereyra.

If you look at social media, the numbers speak for themselves. After a quick search, 77,000 people have clicked “interested” in an event calling itself London’s First Dumpling Festival on Facebook, while 55,000 are interested in a similarly marketed cheese festival. One food festival company that I speak to tells me that their event on Facebook went viral without any marketing. The tag #foodfestival on Instagram appears 378,325 times. Stats from events website Eventbrite show that 84 percent of food festival-goers post pictures of the food they eat. Most of the viral festivals I found on social media didn’t yet have tickets or location details, just the promise of ample gyoza, and an experience you can post about on Snapchat.

One company intent on tapping into the food festival market is the startup unambiguously named We Love Food. The organisation, which started in November 2017 as an offshoot from a music events company, is hosting a number of food festivals this summer in an East London location, after their events gained a huge following online.

I visit them at their office in Central London (which is also home to Twitter, I’m told as I enter the building). On this snowy Wednesday in March, I’m transported to a futuristic world with floors of identikit companies working in a glass tube-like building. Strangely, the space seems to get no natural light, despite being about eight stories high.

After navigating my way through the various security checkpoints, William Young, director of We Love Food, and I sit down by a window overlooking snowy Picadilly Circus to discuss why he decided to start a food festival company.

“Last Christmas, we had this idea about We Love Food, after it was thrown around the office,” Young tells me. “So we went round everyone [in the company], and dumplings came up. We all agree everyone loved dumplings, so we pushed it out on Facebook, [with a] venue in mind ... then within a week, 50,000 people had clicked ‘attending.’”

After that, We Love Food promoted an idea for a sushi festival that also reached thousands of people on Facebook. But it wasn’t until their chicken nugget festival that the online demand for food events really became clear. The event, launched on Facebook with no venue or ticket details (natch), went viral, receiving coverage from American and Australian publications, as well as those in the UK. According to Facebook data that We Love Food shows me, 25 to 34-year-old Facebook users were driving this hype.

“I think the meme generation has helped us with the chicken nugget festival,” Young says. “There's no getting away from that.”

He also attributes the events' success—viral reach on social media and thousands of sign-ups—to the millennial demographic’s changing taste; one that is moving away from music festivals and towards food.

“You had the big Reading and Leeds generic outdoor concerts with food traders and bars, and the biggest acts in the world, then you had the new wave that came in, like Secret Garden party—the immersive festivals, where it became a bit more about the product and experience.”

He adds: “Everything's become more channelled and niche. With all the accessibility with food, I think peoples taste are becoming so refined.”

As we define ourselves more and more by social media, a selfie holding a plate of vegan mac ‘n’ cheese with the caption, “I can’t brie-lieve it’s not cheese!!,” has more social capital than a second hand Ford Fiesta.

When describing the planned We Love Food festivals to me, Young talks of food “arenas” and structuring the event like a music festival (one of his suggested names for a stage is “Ramen feat. Pho,” which I laugh at, then immediately regret laughing at). I ask whether it would be apt to say that the company is taking a music festival sensibility and simply adding food.

“Absolutely,” says Young. “That's a good way of putting it.”

Does he thinks it could ever become more popular than music festivals?

“I think it could absolutely overtake music festivals,” he says. “It's far more accessible. Not everyone's cup of tea is going into a field and into a crowd and listening to music that may be different genres. Whereas if you go into chicken nugget festival, or a hummus festival, you know that you like hummus, or sausages.”

Photo via Flickr user 5chw4r7z.

Here, Young identifies another key element in the current popularity of the food festival: its un-controversiality. As a food writer, I would never argue that food is uncontroversial, but for most people; enjoying cheese, nuggets, or even nitrogen-rich bacon, is a palatable opinion. It’s easy, it’s accessible, and it doesn’t require a desire to listen to three hours of men with guitars, take drugs, or develop low-level hypothermia from trying to sleep in a tent during the British summertime to enjoy.

However, a food festival is not a foolproof operation, and a hungry customer can prove the harshest critic. From the pizza festival that ran out of pizza, to “The Giant Cheeseboard” that barely managed to serve supermarket cheese, food events of a certain model seem primed to fail, and it can be hard to tell which ones to trust, especially when many promote themselves with a deliberate level of mystery (Young, at one point in our conversation, asks if I have to use his real name, as he “quite likes the mystery.”) A festival you pay to attend could have been organised by an established events company running for four years, or it might be set up by two 22-year-olds from Manchester who reckon they’re on to a quick buck.

Worst case scenario looks something like this: You’ve been queuing in an industrial car park for two hours now. The sun beats down on your pale, English skin, and you try to catch a glimpse of the food stall, worried that it may be a mirage. Sure, it would be inappropriate to start crying, but you really feel like you might start crying. Here lies Sophie, dead by 3.05 PM after fatal lack of food at the world’s biggest sushi festival. They said on Twitter it would be “O-fish-ally lit.” Gone but never forgotten.

Despite the potential for downfall, millennials are still flocking to food festivals. I spoke to Nick Morgan, CEO of events company We Are The Fair, who tells me that the booming food scene has resulted in a growing number of food festivals. “In the 90s, you would have been lucky to have gotten a properly cooked burger at a show,” he tells me over email. “Now, the choice is huge and to the extent that audiences come for the food as much as they do for the music.”

It’s also to do with the street food trend, Morgan says. “[The rise in food festival] is driven through the absolute exponential growth in street food culture,” he explains, “which is synonymous with the fact that street food can then develop into a wider proposition and festival environment.”

Whether you’re vegan, obsessed with Tabasco, or just someone who likes to spend a Saturday looking at niche mustards, the food festival is answering a need for millennials who—in most other walks of life—are being royally screwed over.

… At least we’ve got a nugget festival?