After three months at Indianapolis City Market, I know enough to avoid getting lost in the building or overwhelmed by a lunch rush, but I need to do a little more work before I know enough about the place to write something that’s worth reading. Before City Market, Gomez BBQ was a mobile operation, and these three months have put enough daylight between our nomadic past and our newly settled station for me to give a worthwhile opinion of our former roving history* and the festivals/events that defined it.
I love festivals.
To start, food and drink festivals seem to exist at the delicate border of civilization and anarchy, and I can't help but admire the festival organizers and event planners whose herculean efforts are a steady bulwark against chaos. That these organizers are able to take on this task and complete it so successfully is a constant miracle. Credit should also be given to the genial and accommodating spirit of the Indianapolis Festivalgoer. We are a friendly folk, and we try to help when we can (more on this later).
Kindhearted attendees notwithstanding, running a sizeable event involves a lengthy checklist of important details. I lack the insider event planning knowledge to name them all, and because I consciously avoided researching this topic beforehand**, the following list of details are almost certainly a small fraction of what you need for a successful food/drink festival.
You need: Security, wrist bands, ticket takers, port-a-potties, hand washing stations, a venue, permits and permissions, personnel, a fence, gates, tents, a power supply, golf carts***, advertising and promotion leading up to the event, toolbox with duct tape/zip ties/scissors****, drinking water, a map of seating/vendors/stages, a system for selling and taking tickets, some well-made signs, walkie talkies, durable extension cords, AND a backup plan for each individual item because it is an inarguable fact that more than one of these things will break down, fail to arrive, function incorrectly, or otherwise fail to contribute to your well-oiled festival machine.
What will you do when the zip tie guy and the duct tape lady are running late? What happens when the tickets won’t scan? These things will happen, but this is Festival Time. This is where heroes are born.
Things are much less complicated from the perspective of a food vendor. Planning for an event means finding the best food to serve, but there are a few other considerations, the most important of which is predicting how many people will be eating. I don’t know how Michael Gomez does it, but I like to think of it as a kind of math equation.
My Gomez BBQ Festival Algorithm looks like this:
Y(Attendees#) / (Food vendors#) + a(Food vendors similar to Gomez BBQ#) = X. X – fees and operating costs = Z.
Y, which is a way of determining how many attendees will buy food at a given event, is more of a guessing game than a fixed coefficient. People are hungrier at food festivals than they are at beer fests, weather is a factor, and there are surely other important considerations that I am not privy to. A well-worn festival vendor—a Michael Gomez, if you will—draws on some inscrutable combination of instinct and experience, sticks his head out the window, feels the breeze, and breathes in this Festival Hunger Quotient, Y, like it was the most natural thing in the world. I lack this expert ability. The "a" value can also vary, but most festival organizers try to invite a variety of food vendors because an event with four poutine trucks and three BBQ outfits would just be silly.
With the bulk of the work finished, all that remains is the event itself. Here’s what I love about food and drink festivals: Despite Indiana weather that needs only minutes to swing from cold and rainy to mercilessly hot, there’s something about being at a festival that makes it hard to be unhappy. Organizers and vendors have planned a long time for this, attendees carry optimism along with the tickets they’ve purchased, and there’s a collaborative attitude that makes it hard to ruin anybody’s day.
I arrived at the October 28th Broad Ripple Beer Fest around noon. It was insidiously cold—the kind of cold that doesn’t immediately call for a heavy coat but eventually worms its way through your thin fleece jacket and straight into your bones. The sky was the uniform grey of a 19th century Russian novel. On any other occasion, collective misery would be a foregone conclusion, but not at the Broad Ripple Beer Fest.
The vendor next to us was having trouble with his generator, and who should step up to help but Scottish Batman. I have no problem chalking up this encounter as yet another festival miracle. Yes, I accept that Scottish Batman could be a helpful Hoosier’s Halloween costume, but given the many incredible things I have seen at Indianapolis food and drink events, it is just as likely that Scotland’s Actual Batman was called down from the highlands to save this festival vendor.
The cold kept up, but the festival was stronger. With a growing crowd gathered around it, the Gomez BBQ smoker, a harsh mistress of heat and hickory smoke on any other day, was a welcome source of comfort and conviviality. This mix of miserable conditions and transcendent good spirits can only be found at a festival.
I could point to the addictive smolder of ZwanzigZ’s Ghost Pepper Imperial Stout or the perfect harmony of my red curry steak taco from La Chinita Poblana, but it’s the helpful attitude and easy hospitality that made the Broad Ripple Beer Fest a perfect example of what’s great about Indianapolis food and drink festivals.
*Gomez BBQ still serves food at festivals and other events, but we no longer rely on festivals and events as our primary source of income.
***Golf carts are an important part of a well-run festival because they help establish a hierarchy. Some of us, me included, may never be good enough to reach Golf Cart Status.
****Subsequent research suggests (see links in second footnote) that duct tape, zip ties, and scissors are considered so essential to festival organizing that they are completely absent from event planning articles and checklists. While it should go without saying that duct tape, zip ties, and scissors are essential for resolving emergencies at the event, it would be a disservice to readers for me to omit them here.