SFN: Slow Follow-Up, Part 2: Taste Pavillions

This is probably going to be the last piece in our coverage of 2008 Slow Food Nation, the labor day sustainable food event that turned San Francisco into one big gourmet ghetto. Overall, I thought the ambitious, four-day event was a smash, but you can’t ignore the criticisms, so here’s our second installment looking at what could be improved next time.

Standing in the charcuterie line with MPSF cohort Alexis Wright and her “Sweetie,” Bobby Rullo, I watched a disgruntled patron accost a volunteer:

“Nine dollars,” the tight-lipped woman said, thrusting a piece of butcher paper topped with a small stack of pate and salumi into the face of the aproned woman checking tickets. “This tiny amount of food cost the equivalent of nine dollars. That is outrageous!”

“Please ma’am, I’m just a volunteer. I didn’t come up with the prices. Let me see if I can find you somebody to talk to,” the weary-looking volunteer said, as the growing line of attendees shifted its weight from one foot to the other, and looked hungrily at the small pile of meat.

Long lines, a confusing layout, and uneven pricing were probably the most frequent attendee complaints stemming from the taste pavilions at Slow Food Nation.

Of all the carefully choreographed Slow Food nation events, the taste pavilions were probably the most complicated, and suffered most from the organizational problems inherent in the seminal event.

In contrast to a normal food show, the pavilions—tickets to which cost about $65—used a form of proprietary currency called “slow dough” to track what samples attendees were given. After the 20 empty circles on your slow dough ticket were slashed off, you were done, or you could buy more “dough.” The booth to buy more slow dough was one of the few with a very short line.

“The lines were so long that there was no chance to talk with anybody. You couldn’t waste time not being in line,” e-mailed Byron, a San Francisco acoustitian who attended the event with his wife, Erin, a science writer.

“It was often unclear what line you might be in, and even less clear whether you were in line for a “taste” or for a “flight”… There was no useful information to educate you while you waited in line,” Byron wrote.

Slow Food Nation director Anya Fernald acknowledged the organizational problems. “There wasn’t enough of a global strategy on it… it’s a sign of us doing this for the first time and kind of breaking the mold on events,” she said. “We did our debriefing with our internal team and realized the slow dough was unnecessary and in future we won’t have that. It added an unnecessary layer of complexity.”

Fernald said a goal of the event was to be different from normal food shows. “You’re so used to going to an event where you grab a snack here and a snack there… [This is] like an Exploratorium of food.”

The pavilion, which spanned an enormous Fort Mason exhibition hall, cost more than $300,000 just to build, Fernald said. Slow Food Nation paid for the build-out and the food, and commissioned local experts to act as curators for each area. Curators were given a budget, and were tasked with buying and presenting foods that represented each area, including breads, pickles and chutney, charcuterie, cheese, seafood, coffee, wine, and so on.

“It was certainly the first time for a lot of the curators that we had done anything like this, so we were going back and forth trying to make it make sense,” said Marissa Guggiana, of Sonoma Direct, who curated the charcuterie pavilion.

“Long story short, they (Slow Food Nation) gave us a budget and said, ‘this is what you have to make it happen.’ And we filled in the cracks with favors [and] generosity.” She said she determined the slow-dough “pricing” of each item based on that item’s actual cost and size.

Fernald was right about the extra layer of complexity added by the slow dough. After trying to budget my time and “money” to make the most out of the experience, I found myself at the end trying to spend up an extra four circles of slow dough in a hurry, still having yet to hit at least five of the pavilions.

By the end of Saturday’s later session, which I attended, most pavilions were giving their food away. Others simply closed, to the chagrin of Byron and other attendees.

“There’s no way that the food, even super-expensive food, could even approach a value of $60. We didn’t receive any real education, which was the only thing that could have set this event apart from a $60 meal at a place like Millennium,” Byron wrote.

After talking to Fernald, I think the huge amount of effort and care taken to minimize waste, ensure quality and variety, and design the space, was not communicated effectively to the attendees. “What I am proud of was, the people who are really happy within the event are the farmers, the curators,” she said.

But who cares how much time and effort the thing took to put together if the end result isn’t enjoyable? I had a great time, personally, but then, I was there on a press pass.

Lessons were learned, Fernald said, and will be put to use next time. When will that be? “I don’t think 2009 is feasible. I think 2010 might happen. There’s definitely a viable economic model that we’ve seen can work.”

Slow Food Nation [Official Site]
Sonoma Direct [Official Site]

[Photo: Via Adam Martin]

SFN: Slow Follow-Up, Part 2: Taste Pavillions