Well Folks, today is Memorial Day and our participation in the Blue Crab Festival in Palatka, Florida, is one for the archives. Our hopes were very high for this Blue Crab event. Our personal telephone conversations with one of the promoters were inspiring after he told us to expect a crowd of around 75,000. In addition to that, festival.net listed past Blue Crab attendance at 250,000. Festival net is a website that advertises festivals throughout the country. Information about each festival is placed on the website by the festival promoters themselves. As food vendors, our purchases of food and supplies as well as labor expenses depend on anticipated numbers of each and every event we attend. For this event, we purchased 250 lbs of chicken, 12 triple bags of celery, 10 lbs of onions, plus three restaurant sized spices and four gallons of mayonnaise for our homemade, old-fashioned, chicken salad. We also purchased 300 buns, 300 rolls, and six economy-sized spring mix salad boxes. All of this for one dish. Our other menu offerings were our staple roasted corn and strawberry shortcake. We purchased 15 bushels of sweet corn, made 16 homemade Irish butter cakes, and processed 20 flats of strawberries. To these food products we added four propane tanks, 160 lbs of ice, $200 worth of water and soft drinks, plus our fuel to transport all of our food and gear to Palatka and return each night to our homes. And so, we loaded up and headed for Palatka, a sleepy, quaint, town on the shores of the St. John's river. The setting was beautiful--bright and sunny with a stiff breeze that really put us in an expectant mood. After the two days of prep time (preparing food, fueling up vehicles, and loading our two trucks and corn roaster), we were finally ready to put up our festival tent, organize our half-dozen coolers, and fire up our corn roaster. As we waited for the corn roaster to reach 400 degrees, we prepared for the fire and health inspectors. Our papers were in order and the health inspector checked us off as "ready to serve." We were all set to go! As we took our places behind the tables defining our tent space, we anxiously awaited the Friday night swarm of festival goers. After four hours and near closing time (Friday's event opened at 5 and closed at 9 pm), we had sold less than $20 worth of product. None of the other vendors had sold anything either. We packed up and headed back towards Lady Lake and home. Perplexed, but not yet dismayed, we shrugged off the sluggish start to the fact that most people were waiting for Saturday, when families would turn out for the big event. As we left Palatka heading for Lady Lake, we needed to stop in Ocala at our commissary kitchen (a professional kitchen for the catering industry) and pick up 200 lbs of cooked/shredded chicken and bags and bags of chopped celery and onions processed by the commissary owners in order to help us with our largest-to-date-event. We arrived home at 1 am. At 6 am we were up bright and early assembling 100 lbs of chicken for Saturday's expected crowds. The anticipation among vendors on Saturday (May 28th) was high, but by 5 pm vendors began to question one another about "what was going on." What was going on was that the crowds never materialized and those that were there were not in the frenzied buying mood that occurs when droves of event goers become excited about street food opportunities and the wide range of things to buy at most events. On the way back to Lady Lake Saturday night we talked about why the crowds were so thin. We thought about socio-economics, competing events, the heat index, and on and on. By Sunday morning we still had no answers. The Blue Crab festival 2016 simply had us stumped. At past events we might have had some product left over, but most times we were sold out by the end of the night, so we knew that our formula for judging how much product we needed to bring to the event was pretty much on target. The numbers were simply not in sync. With a crowd of 75,000, we anticipated our market share at about 2%. Therefore, we prepared around 1000 chicken salad meals, 500 strawberry shortcakes, and 750 ears of corn. With cautious optimism, we fired up the corn roaster again and took our places behind the tables in our tent ready to serve what we hoped was a hungry crowd of festival goers. But again, we were wrong. A few hundred folks milled around without any outward sign of enthusiasm. By noon, six or seven vendors gathered together to speak about the event. By the time we assembled, the rumble of disturbing news about the low attendance had reached the ears of most of the vendors on our designated street. The news that was making its way through event vendors was that one of the organizers admitted that the individual in charge of advertising simply did not advertise the festival other than to list it on the festival's Facebook page and conduct a brief radio interview on the very Saturday of the event (May 28th). Where were the billboards in Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Gainesville, Florida we asked each other? Where were the radio spots two to three weeks prior to the event? Where were the print and online news stories about the Palatka Blue Crab Festival? They simply did not exist! All of the crab, fish, shrimp, sausages, onion rings, and chicken salad, designed to feed tens of thousands of festival goers sat in coolers and freezers that vendors had lifted, tugged, and set up under tents in order to store all of the food necessary to "feed the people." Needless to say, we and our vendor friends were stunned. One couple had spent five days in a nearby campground feeding the homeless at night after the festival closed and tending their booth during the day. This couple drove from North Carolina and would be lucky if they broke even after paying their $900 space rental. One very large food vendor with five or six employees, selling everything from hotdogs to funnel cakes said that his operation would lose around $5000 as a result of mishandled advertising. We tried to imagine how much the largest concession vendors would stand to lose in revenue, as we never once saw more than two people in line at any large vendor operation. Quite a contrast to the St. Augustine festival only a handful of months before, where folks lined up 200 deep for seafood and 90 in our line for roasted corn. Of the vendors we spoke to, more than half said that they would not be back next year. And while those in charge ("the committee") of gathering vendors and putting the festival on may not financially suffer, because they have already received huge sums of revenue from space rental, lucrative deals with commercial soft drink manufacturers, and so on, they have done so on the backs of the very people who make any festival possible--the vendors. Our little group of vendors put our case forward to one of the event coordinators, who while sympathetic to our concerns, offered us nothing in return for the mishandling of necessary advertising, which is critical to the success of any public event. Perhaps the single most positive experience we had at the Palatka Blue Crab Festival was the pleasure of meeting and greeting the city's fire and police men and women, who were a constant presence at the festival with their offerings of assistance with all sorts of issues, including searching out a large pipe wrench in order to swap the ball hitch for our corn roaster so that we could pack up early and head for home, putting this unpleasant experience behind us. As for Palatka's dream of putting itself on the map by acquiring a distinct personality as a happening place, we both hope that the city mothers and fathers will be able to realize their goal, but at the same time, they should keep in mind that those who come to Palatka to make their dream of success possible, also have dreams of their own.
5/30/2016 07:35:44 pm
This was a well written article.
I heard from multiple people the Blue Crab Festival was definitely one to attend! Some vendors said it's their "Better shows of the year". Because of this reason, I drove an hour to Palatka to check this event out, and support local business colleagues. I was so surprised and disappointed that many many booth spots were empty! I had two thoughts running through my mind.... Either these vendors did so well and sold out, or they did so bad it wasn't worth staying the last day (Monday-Memorial Day). I'm hoping the vendors and attendees of the event will be able to raise awareness of the poor advertisement to the event coordinator in efforts to correct their actions. Events like this need advertisement, and misleading the vendors with an inaccurate assumption of 75,000 people is not only unfair but cost them their hard working dollar and time. I hope this event will return to its former glory as I was told.
6/2/2016 09:21:20 am
What a disappointment! I hope the organizers apologize to the vendors and fix the situation so the festival doesn't fail in the future.
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A retired professor who exchanged her academic robes for a sous chef's cap!