Why isn't "Taste of Durham" festival better?
I was looking at the list of restaurants participating in the annual "Taste of Durham" food festival, and the list is really depressing. I'm not going to name names, but there are a bunch of very generic, national chains participating, and some extremely uninteresting local offerings. Why don't any of Durham's more notable restaurants want to participate? We could do so much better than this! I go just about every year to the Hill Country food and Wine festival in Austin, TX, and it's a glitzy, spectacular affair. Tickets are about $100, and you get to sample food from what I estimate to be over a hundred restaurants, Texas wineries, and even local distilleries. What gets in the way of Taste of Durham stepping it up?
Perhaps because there are so many other "outside the restaurant" events that these chefs already do around the Triangle. Like the Carrboro and Durham Farmer's Market demonstrations, to the Celebrity Dairy and Elodie Farms dinners, to other gatherings like the Slow Food Picnic. While it would be nice to have this event as good as say the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, I think it's an either/or between that and being blessed with having chefs out and about in the community year-round.
I grew up in DC, spent most of my adult life there, and I can assure you that this happens there too. There is a big money party (which sounds like the one you go to in Austin), and then there is the street fair, and the street fair is always just a conglomeration of junk, maybe one or two good things tossed in. There are 40 different places to get lo mein or chicken on a stick, and one or two interesting things. It's a shame, but I guess lots of places have mediocre "Taste ofs."
From the restaurant's perspective, there is also a cost factor. Yes, the advertising is invaluable and I always argued that getting the food in the customers' mouth was the most important thing we could do but participating in any event of this type costs money. There are fees to participate, food costs, personnel costs, time, travel, planning, etc. You have to calculate where you'll get your biggest bang for your buck. When times are tough it's important not to cut back on advertising but sometimes the money just plain isn't there. It's not always an easy call.
The Durham Arts Council used to have an Edible Arts event that was really good. About 30 quality restaurants participated. My wife and I helped with set up several times. We got to meet the chefs when we helped them set up and they all recognized us later when we stopped by to see how they were doing and to try their food.