Food Festivals to Promote Cervid Products

As deer and elk numbers continue to increase on North American farms, our industry needs to develop and expand the markets for venison. One way consumers and chefs can be made aware of this specialty cuisine is through food festivals.

I am currently involved with several of my clients in organizing the Alberta Prairie Heritage Food Festival that will be held on September 16th 2001 at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, just east of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The Heritage Food Festival is being held in conjunction with the annual “Harvest of the Past” event at the Village.

This Food Festival project is being undertaken by the Alberta Elk Association, the Alberta White-tail and Mule Deer Association, the Alberta Reindeer Association, and the Alberta Bison Association, in cooperation with the Fruit Growers Society of Alberta and the Alberta Market Gardeners Association.

The purpose of the Festival is to hold a one-day public festival to promote Alberta-produced native fruit (e.g., Saskatoon berry, chokecherry) and native livestock (e.g., bison, elk and deer) food products.

The goals of the Prairie Heritage Food Festival are to:

  1. Market and sell Alberta-grown fruit, venison, bison meat and related products.
  2. Educate potential buyers as how to prepare and serve these products.
  3. Provide marketing benefits to producers through competitions and awards.
  4. Make the general public more aware and informed regarding these farming industries.
  5. Provide a venue to test consumer interest and reaction to new Alberta food and beverage products.
  6. Attract new producers to these industries.
  7. Develop new markets, strategic alliances and value-added distribution chains.
  8. Generate revenues for associations and its members.
  9. Provide an informative, fun and entertaining day for the whole family.

Each of the participating associations will have booths on site to provide information, samples and promotional items to the public. Some of the booths will also be selling products – venison, bison burgers, Saskatoon pies, vegetables – to the public to take home.

The associations will be providing meals during the day showcasing their products. The Festival day will start out with a VIP and media pancake breakfast featuring native fruit syrups and venison/bison sausages along with rhubarb and currant juice. Once the special guests are finished, this same breakfast will be made available to the public attending the events at the Village that day.

After breakfast is finished, visitors will be able to savour a whole range of delicious food. For the main course, they will have a choice of either bison or venison shiskabobs, bison burgers, bison or elk roast on a bun, and a venison/bison stew. This will be accompanied by a choice of fresh potatoes, corn, coleslaw and fresh dill pickles. For dessert, there will be freshly baked Saskatoon berry pie with ice cream and other assorted fruit desserts.

In addition, there may be demonstrations of how to make jams, how to cook venison/bison, product competitions and taste tests. All in all, consumers will have a very “feastful” day! As well, they will be able to buy our products to take home to enjoy.

We plan to make this an annual event to promote our cervid industries among the local public and consumers. You (the deer, elk and reindeer associations) are strongly encouraged to do the same in each province, state or country in which you are located.

To obtain maximum benefit from Food Festivals, here are some suggestions:

  1. Make a plan – putting your event proposal in writing seems like extra effort and work. However, it is worth it. It provides your Board, members and partners with a clearer indication of what you are planning to do. We found it invaluable in communicating and negotiating with our potential partners. As well, the plan can serve as a to-do list to help in organizing and managing the thousands of tasks that need to be done for a successful event.
  2. Partner up – look for existing organizations and events with which you can partner up. This makes hosting a food festival so much easier. In our case, the Ukrainian Village has the venue, infrastructure, track record and resources already in place. Adding in the Prairie Heritage Food Festival was a natural fit, greatly increasing our odds of success. It is a win-win situation for all parties.
    • We were pleasantly surprised by how many organizations were interested in getting involved with us. Most of these were public organizations (city, provincial) looking for ways to enhance the attendance and attractiveness of their events. Good food always makes friends! We are looking at possibly partnering up with some of these organizations and their events in the future. Ideally, we hope to host 3 to 4 food festivals in different venues each year. A side benefit is that many of these organizations are now looking at offering some of our products, e.g., bison burgers, as part of their regular food service.
    • The other partnering that needs to take place is with other complementary associations. The Alberta Elk Association, Alberta White-tail and Mule Deer Association, Alberta Bison Association and the Alberta Fruit Growers all have offices in the same building in Leduc, just minutes away from the Edmonton international airport. This arrangement really facilitates communication, sharing and working together. Also, as a group, we are much more attractive to potential external partners. We can bring greater resources, connections and expertise to any marketing initiative.
  3. Get grants – non-profit deer and elk associations promoting locally-grown products in events that attract tourism likely qualify for various grant programs. Most states and provinces have programs to support such initiatives. Find out what is available and apply for these funds. It is much easier to hold a successful event if you have some seed funding with which to work. Remember though, along with grants comes accountability. So be sure to understand and comply with all the obligations attached to any grant funding. Also contact your local Chamber of Commerce for support that they may be able to provide.
  4. Get local chefs involved – we were pleasantly surprised at how many quality chefs were interested in getting involved with our festival. In fact, we finally had to restrict the number of chefs just so that the event could remain manageable. Chefs are interested in showcasing their talents (and restaurants) to the public. They are also interested in unique, locally-produced products that can differentiate them from their competitors. Many restaurants, especially those catering to foreign tourists, love to feature regional cuisine. Because of this interest, we are looking at a special event just for chefs to showcase their capabilities with these specialty products.
    • We also have contacted the local college which has a chef’s program to see whether some of their second-year students could assist with our event. This has a duel benefit – having knowledgeable help for the event, and preparing future chefs to work with venison.
  5. Showcase your best – make sure that the products you serve at these events are your very best. Otherwise you will be doing our industry more damage than good. This is why it is useful to have experienced chefs involved as part of your event. They will make sure that everything tastes great, because their egos and reputations are at stake. Also, when selecting suppliers or taste samples, exercise the same level of quality control.
  6. Provide information – you need to educate the consumer. Be sure that at these events you have people and information available on such things as nutritional/health benefits, cooking tips, recipes, places to buy, web sites, and where people can call/click to find vendors and more information. People will be interested in our products; help them to become regular customers.
  7. Involve the media – a public relations expert once told me the best way to get reporters out is to offer lots of free and delicious food. Make sure the media is aware of your food festival. This can be done by sending out press releases, appearing (with food samples) on radio and television morning shows, and inviting the media to a special breakfast or meal. At the Prairie Heritage Food Festival, we also have a local media celebrity serving as a guest chef. Getting the media involved in judging food competitions, serving food and other activities should also be considered. Don’t forget to do regular advertising as well.
  8. Support your members – remember that the whole purpose of the exercise is to help your association members sell their deer, elk or reindeer products. As such, your members must be given the first option to provide the food for the event, and the opportunity to promote and sell their own products. Profitable members are happy members and will continue to support your association.
  9. Evaluate – take some time and effort to evaluate how well your event did – that is the only way you can continually improve. Here are some factors you may want to consider:
    • Attendance – detailed statistics should be collected as to the number of visitors to your Festival.
    • Financial results – how profitable was the Festival?
    • Booths – how many vendors rented booths, and how satisfied were they with the event in terms of visitors, leads and sales?
    • Events attendance – how many people attended each of the information, demonstration and presentation sessions, as well as the pancake breakfast?
    • Interest and inquiries – how many inquiries were there for each industry, and how many brochures were given out by the associations?
    • Increased sales – this can be difficult to measure, but members should be surveyed to measure any new sales or contracts that could be directly attributed to the Festival.
    • Other benefits – the participating partners should be asked to identify any other benefits they received as a result of the Food Festival.

Also, here are some cautions you might want to keep in mind:

  1. Start small, do it right and then expand. We often try and take on too much when planning and organizing these events. It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and volunteer contributions to pull it off. If your members are scattered over a large geographical area, this will increase your challenges of finding sufficient volunteers and resources.
  2. Build and develop relationships. You know how difficult it can often be to get members of your own association to work together, let alone individuals from a diverse organizations. Allow enough time to get to know each other, to communicate constantly and solve problems, and never take anything for granted. Like a good marriage, it takes a lot of effort and commitment to work well together.
  3. Don’t be afraid to conscript or hire professionals. Look within your own association first, then outside for people to help out. You will be surprised how many people are willing to help, either for free or for a modest fee.