Feeding the Festival
by Lisa Elbert, Tastemaker in Residence
The music stops. Throngs of people rush from the stage, leaving clouds of dust in their tracks. It’s nearly 100°F at dusk, and the festival-goers line up for water and sustenance to carry them through the next show. As the food trucks are bombarded, the chefs and their teams take one last gulp from their chilled cans of High Life. They’re ready to feed the festival.
Jeremiah Bullfrog, chef and owner of Miami-based gastroPod, never intended to travel to festivals to feed thousands. But after an off-the-cuff conversation with a festival founder and five years of heading up catering for Miami’s Ultra, Bullfrog’s foray into festivals had turned into a staple of his yearly revenue. In his final year at Ultra, gastroPod was born. “The whole reason we built the original pod was because we had to set up these crazy kitchens under a tent to pull off the festival,” says Bullfrog.
He and his team began participating in events outside of Miami, driving cross-country to Coachella, Stagecoach, Bonnaroo, and Scope. Running a satellite kitchen in extreme heat for 14 hours a day isn’t ideal. And for Bullfrog, it’s not about the music. (He only sees one show per festival, sending his team to the rest.) It’s about the rush that comes from feeding the masses—and capitalizing on the investment he’s made into an already successful food truck operation. “I like feeding people. Lots of people. We thought, how can we feed more people? And in a sense, how do we teach people that there’s better food?” he says. “This was a way for me to take my fine-dining background and exemplify it to feed the masses. I like the challenge of turning out great food in a usually less than ideal setting. It’s exhilarating.”
What does it take to get to a festival? Persistence, timing, and at least 10 grand, according to Bullfrog. He and his team applied to Bonnaroo for at least two years before finally getting the go-ahead. “Every festival starts looking to fill their vendor slots at a certain time each year, and in the beginning, for us, it was kind of keeping tabs on their websites,” he says.
Once you’re in, you need up-front cash to make it happen: there are festival fees, operatitonal fees, taxes, food costs, water, power, gas, and staffing—to name a few expenses. Take the water. Bullfrog and his team invested in 300 yards of food-grade hoses to hook up to the pod for Ultra, and nearly two dozen five-gallon water jugs and a wheelbarrow for Bonnaroo. On the flip-side of those fees is an entirely captive and hungry audience. “If you sell 2,000 burgers at $10 a pop, you kind of know what you’re going to gross at the end of the day. The idea is that you pick a number that you want to hit, and if the volume is there, and you can produce and keep up with that volume, the trick is to keep all other costs low.”
The team behind gastroPod has feeding festivals worked out to a science, but it has taken them years to get there—working out kinks in travel, execution, and menu planning. “It’s all high volume, so you have to make things you can turn around quickly, but by the same token, you’re not going to kill yourself trying to keep up with the prep. It’s all about finding a balance of dishes that people are going to want to eat at a festival, and things we can serve quickly but still keep great quality,” he says. Thanks to trial and error, attention to details, and a fine-dining mentality, Bullfrog has built a profit center that’s fueled by sweltering heat, hoards of people, and even a little music.
Estimated overhead: $10,000
Sales tax: Varies state-to-state (e.g., 9.45% in Tennessee, 8.44% in California)
Average operating costs: Expect to spend 25% to 40% of gross on power, gas, water, etc.
Average food costs: 19%
Number of people served per day: 700 to 1,000
Menu price: Avg. $10 per item
Staffing: 5 paid, plus 5 volunteers
Libations: $30/day (Bullfrog’s team prefers Miller High Life, which runs for about $14/30-rack)