Ian Irving: Food for thought

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At a festival, what’s more important – the food or the music? Or is the desire for top quality in both a modern festivalgoers right? Ian Irving, founder, The Tailor of Shoreditch, ponders the question…

This summer I’ve had the pleasure of attending many of the season’s festivals with a number of brand clients. The events were large and small, music and culture, automobile and food focused… and anyone who knows me will know that good food has been high on my agenda. My findings have been good and bad, but one thing is clear: Gone are the days of festival goers being satisfied with an anaemic hot dog, or bullet-hard burger – served by a grubby man with a moody stare.

This year, more than ever, food has risen to centre stage. At some of this year’s hottest events you are more than likely
to be offered fine quality food from a reputable high street restaurant chain or even a Michelin-starred chef.

Being a “foodie” is a popular pastime now and many people and events have jumped on the food bandwagon. There’s the likes of Alex James with his Harvest and, of course, there is Jamie Oliver and his Big Feastival.

But it’s not just the food festivals that are serving up the quality goods – the larger music festivals are getting in on the action too. Take, for example, the arrival of Wagamama. These guys have not just dipped their toe into the festival circuit – they have made an enormous impact with an initiative called the Wagamama lounge. I witnessed the frenzy of this food, music and art experience at this year’s Parklife in Manchester, where the experience seemed to be a huge success with masses of people queuing for the noodles that were cooked fresh in front of your eyes by the actual staff from the restaurants. The clever thing was that the food was freshly prepped and cooked yet cost effective and the experience was interactive – it was served to a backdrop of music with DJs and further interaction with a digital graffiti wall. They successfully created an engaging experience combined with a practical, functional restaurant that delivered food to the exact standard of the restaurants. Anyway, the punters were going crazy for it.

But Wagamama wasn’t the only high street restaurant to take its offering to festivals this summer. Pizza Express was there too, but they simply had a lonely van. Yes, I’m sure the food was a good standard, but it lacked the level of imagination and interaction I believe is necessary to ensure that its attendance was not just part of a “me too” strategy. In my opinion it wasn’t showcasing the Pizza Express brand to true effect.

But although we are seeing some great brands offering some great food – I have to say that it’s not the norm. If food isn’t the key focus of the festival, the vast majority of food on sale is still the same old pies and burgers and hot plates full of MSG-laced gloop, sold by the same old moody guy I mentioned earlier.

Positive health and well-being is high on the consumer agenda these days, so I hope that more and more quality food brands get involved and push out the traditional catering suppliers.

Good food is an integral part of the whole festival experience – it actually enhances the enjoyment of the event and even adds value to the ticket price. It’s not just about beer and bands anymore. We all know that experience is everything. I’d like to see more food-related activation and supply at festivals, and I’d like to see more festival organisers embracing this and working to bring a change to eating habits at their events – after all, good food experiences add far more value to an event than some inane “me too” brand experience promoting a deodorant or a chewing gum.

It’s time for change and I tip my hat to those who embrace the change and those who are making it happen.