When the assignment came in, my husband called to make sure I had seen it. There were 5 days to complete it. All 5 of those days were already booked for him, as it was the Wednesday before opening weekend of OKRF, where we have 2 food shops.
The writing assignment came from the offices of the largest theme park in which we have businesses, and it went out to all of the festival foods vendors.
I will point out that writing assignments are not unheard of from this venue. That show keeps itself innovative by asking their participants to continue thinking about their businesses. In return, they bring us over half a million visitors over 19 days each fall.
The assignment was this:
A.) A two page report of your philosophy of Food and Entertainment and how they work together.
B.) Your goals for each of your areas for the next 10 years
C.) Who is your food advisor? Who or where do you get new food ideas from?
While two of those papers were data-centric (and thus easy), the focus of the assignment was the philosophy paper, which required some contemplation.
I assured Phil that I had the project under control with one caveat … I can be pretty ‘woo-woo’ about the honor it is to share food with people … Yet the request for the paper came in a business environment. Of course it was aso a Philosophy assignment. The Husband pointed out that if I took out all of the ‘woo-woo’ it wouldn’t sound like me, and I relaxed into the project.
What follows is the paper I turned in. I figure I either nailed it, or exposed myself as a wacko.
Some thoughts on Food …
As James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
Food is at the heart of most social gatherings. There is a reason so many cultures have holidays and religious rites which center around a meal. Food brings people together in a way that other shared experiences do not. While alcohol may be a social lubricant, food is at the heart of how cultures define themselves. Shared meals bring people together on a level unparalleled by any other exchange.
“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.” ~ Epicurus
Connecting with the festival audience around food is a remarkably powerful opportunity to influence their overall experience. As we speak of a desire to bring more “well heeled” guests to the Texas Renaissance Festival, we should expect to provide for them a food experience that rivals what they experience in the venues to which they are more accustomed. This is not a conversation about price, but about food quality and innovation. We as a group already hold that TRF is at the cutting edge of the outdoor entertainment field, but vendors are only beginning to bring that level of innovation into the food program.
TRF is host to hundreds of thousands of people, who are seeking an “experience.” They are looking to escape the commonplace nature of their regular worlds. The festival does a remarkable job of this by immersing guests in an environment unlike any other. To offer mundane food options in the park depreciates their overall experience of the venue.
Our opportunity, and our responsibility as food professionals, is to elevate the level of our guests’ food experience at TRF to one that inspires recollections and conversations, further building the reputation of the venue. Since the Texas Renaissance Festival defines what a Renaissance Festival is, it follows that we define what our guests’ culinary experience can be.
Our job is to take people out of their comfort zones … to challenge them to have an escape from their normal routines. If guests wanted “more of the same” they wouldn’t be attending a themed festival in the first place.
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” ~ Cesar Chavez
Some thoughts on Entertainment …
Some of you know that the two of us were working at a Renaissance festival near NYC in September of 2001. The campground nestles in a tight valley. The mountains skirting the campground are crisscrossed with hiking trails. On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, groups of vendors hiked up to the peak, from which we could see the smoke of the ruined twin towers. Throughout the day, reports on the wellbeing of our city-dwelling cast members were delivered. The festival opened for business that following weekend, taking its cue from Broadway choosing to reopen. People came that weekend … by the thousands. The profound value of what we do for a living was made very clear that day. While I’m sure guests occasionally think it … that weekend, the comment we received the most was a heartfelt “Thank You”. The clarifiers were “I needed to get away.” “I needed to distract my kids.” “I needed to breathe before going back and figuring out the next step.”
Escape is probably a universal human need. It certainly is so in our stressed out Western culture. The immersive experience of a Renaissance festival provides that escape by completely uprooting the audience from their routine. Interacting with a guest around the already intimate act of eating brings the engagement to a level of friend-to-friend exchange. Here guests are relating at a level we all experience. While it is certainly possible to interact with a street character about a subject, the conversation that happens there tends to have an element of make-believe. Whereas a question about food connects people at the shared experience of flavors, preferences, and opinions about the foods they love.
“Laughter is brightest in the place where the food is.” – Irish proverb
Food and Entertainment are interwoven. When you travel the world, the way that you are shown hospitality is by being fed by your hosts. When you buy any book on “Entertaining” you end up with something that is 50% recipes. Separation of the two elements is unnatural and counterproductive to a goal of creating a world-class experience. This goes beyond costumes and accents on counter staff, and requires a sincere wish to consider our customer to be our guest.
If we look up the global concepts of the word Hospitality, we find that Ancient Greeks considered it a divine right and in Greek society a person’s ability to abide the laws of Guest Rights and Hospitality determined their social standing and nobility. In India, the concept of hospitality is based upon a principle that translates as “The Guest is God.” More appropriate to our theme, Celtic societies held that guests were to be provided shelter and food, and protected from harm while in their care. We would all do well to remember that Theme Parks and Restaurants are part of the Hospitality Industry. As members of the village that is the Texas Renaissance Festival, we are in effect, inviting these guests into our home, and we should therefore be serving them the best we can offer.
The culture of festivals relies heavily upon Society’s need for communion and celebration. Our job as festival professionals is to facilitate a communally joyous gathering. The fact we make a living at this is simply a fringe benefit. One that can easily disappear if we take the magic of the exchange for granted.