The Eat Beat Dining around South Florida
with Mike Mayo

SOBEWFF 2017: A crowded, tasty feast, with room for improvement

As I ate my way through the 2017 South Beach Wine and Food Festival, my first, here’s the thing that surprised me: There were ticket scalpers. Sidewalk hawkers brokered deals for the Friday-night Burger Bash, and they were on the sands of Miami Beach for the Grand Tasting on Saturday. When a food festival becomes so hot that there is a secondary market for entry, I don’t know whether to regard it as blessing or curse.

“I can’t stand it,” festival founder and director Lee Brian Schrager says. “But as long as they’re not selling tickets above face value, it’s legal.”

This is the beast Schrager has hatched. It is a glorious beast, a tasty beast, a charitable and well-meaning beast. Judging by the crowds and lines at nearly every turn during the 16th edition of the festival in February, it remains a very popular beast.

But there is room for improvement. Schrager and his crew held their annual post-festival retreat last week, assessing what went right and wrong. They were pleased overall with the Taste Fort Lauderdale series, so look for continued expansion in Broward County. The first-time cocktail event in Fat Village didn’t sell as much as hoped (about 450 tickets), but Schrager says the event will return because the downtown area keeps growing with the trendy demographic he wants to hook: 21- to 35-year-olds.

The final festival numbers are not in yet, with vendor invoices due this week. Schrager says the attendance will be similar to last year’s 65,000, but revenue will be slightly off, because of a cheaper ticket price for the big-tent Saturday-night event on the beach. Instead of a $250 barbecue event, the festival held a $100-a-head Bacardi Beach Party late-night event with rapper Rev. Run to attract a younger and more diverse crowd. Still, there will be another seven-figure haul for the festival’s beneficiary, Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Over its life, the festival has raised more than $24 million for the school.

The event also has put South Florida on the culinary map, a so-called “spring break for chefs” that attracts food enthusiasts and industry representatives from around the country. Now that I’ve had time to digest — attending eight events over five days and sampling 24 of 32 burgers at Burger Bash is not for the weak of stomach — here are my top five takeaways:

This is a spectacle that requires patience, fortitude and money. Unlike other one-off food festivals, this is a crazy quilt of 90 overlapping events — seminars, smaller dinners, bigger theme parties and massive tent gatherings. It’s an embarrassment of riches. In that sense, it reminds me the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where music rages simultaneously on 10 stages for eight days. Do you hit the Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink 10th anniversary dinner, the Mango Gang reunion dinner or the Martha Stewart dinner? Tacos after Dark or Italian Bites? Even if you don’t like big crowds and long lines (which I don’t), there are smaller, out-of-the way events that can be more enjoyable, such as the Tailgate Party held at Turnberry Resort in Aventura. But if you don’t have a press pass, a corporate hookup or a trust fund, options will be limited. There are some events in the $95 to $125 range, but most go for $175 to $250.

Family-friendly events are lacking. There is only one event where children and teens are allowed, Fun and Fit as a Family, at Jungle Island on the weekend. It’s cheap ($20) and the setting is nice — apart from the stench of monkey manure — but foodwise it’s not up to the festival’s high standards. When a McDonald’s yogurt parfait with granola is the best item, it’s time to reassess. This has become a community goodwill event, with roughly 4,000 tickets sold (some at a discount) and just as many given away to local schools, so it’s important to keep it, even as a break-even proposition. But I’d like to see under-21 alcohol-free events, with better food at higher price points. Schrager says it’s difficult, sponsorshipwise. “This is the No. 1 thing we talk about every year,” he says. I think it’s important to attract the family demographic and next generation, particularly with so many kids into cooking (see: “Chopped Junior,” etc.) My pitch: a new family tent for the weekend, perhaps on Hollywood Beach (behind Margaritaville?), where children’s tickets run $50, and adults $100, and there could be kids’ versions of Burger Bash and Italian Bites. Instead of wine and spirits, line up Jamba Juice and Starbucks for smoothies and Frappucinos.

Fort Lauderdale still seems like a stepsister. Compared to the glitz and glamour of South Beach, the Fort Lauderdale events are smaller and more subdued. The food from Broward restaurants at the opening Seaside Eats at Bonnet House and the Bloody Mary Brunch at the Fort Lauderdale Ritz-Carlton was fine, but there were problems with drinks. Wine ran out early at Seaside Eats. Mimosas and Champagne were gone after a half-hour at the brunch. That’s because there was a ridiculously long line for standard Bloody Marys, with only one bar serving vodka. Three others served funky, terrible variants made with Scotch, Jim Beam and tequila. “First World problems,” one friend joked. But for $175, patrons expect better. Next time, they should have premade vodka Bloody Marys ready to pour, or arrayed on trays en masse when guests arrive. “Easily fixed,” Schrager says.

Smaller is better. The Aventura tailgate event didn’t have much buzz, but I think I enjoyed it the most. It was set indoors and outdoors, next to a golf course, with a good mix of drinks and foods and manageable lines. With so many hot-food areas sprouting across South Florida, similar so-called “grazing” events should be explored in more locations, including Coconut Grove, Brickell, Wynwood and Hollywood beach.

More tables, please. Wine and spirits are a big part of the mix, with Schrager’s employer, Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, a key sponsor. Some festival veterans bring strap-on wine glasses to hang around their necks for the grazing events, but the balancing act between plates and glasses can get tricky — and messy. There are some standup tables and seating areas around the big tents, but there could be more. These bites and sips are too good to spill.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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