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How Austin’s Food Events Evolved to Go Virtual This Year

A barbecue festival, food nonprofit, and supper club had to change formats in light of the pandemic

The Vital Farms basket from the Elephant Table
The Vital Farms basket from the Elephant Table
Chelsea Francis
Erin Russell is associate editor of Eater Austin, a native Austinite, and a big fan of carbs.

Event planners are, by profession, prepared to anticipate disasters, but the novel coronavirus pandemic is truly testing their ability to adapt. The events they had spent months planning were canceled by city and state mandates out of safety concerns. If organizers were to salvage any costs, they would have to recreate a similar experience in virtual events — where people could participate from their own homes without fear of spreading the virus — something most organizers had never done before.

Eater Austin checked in with the three event organizers — supper club the Elephant Table, the Texas Food & Wine Foundation (which hosts several annual food-centric events), and Texas Monthly magazine (which throws a giant barbecue festival every year) — to see how each modified their events into online formats, so people can still have fun while staying safe during the pandemic.

In March, when the pandemic really began to take hold in Austin, the dominoes fell quickly for in-person events. When South by Southwest, one of the biggest money-makers for the city, canceled its festival just a week before it was scheduled to begin, it set off alarm bells for scheduled events for the remainder of the year. Soon after, in mitigation efforts, Austin Mayor Steve Adler banned events of more than 250 people, and a few days later, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott cut the maximum to 10 people. That ruling still mostly stands in Austin.

With in-person events off the table, event organizers scrambled to brainstorm how to translate their events to a virtual format. They needed to recreate the ambience of an event (music, table settings, food, conversation) in an environment they ultimately could not control (someone else’s home), in addition to figuring out logistics like deliveries and costs. Moreover, they had to figure out how to get people, who were likely suffering from screen fatigue, excited about spending even more time in front of a screen, after long days of working from home.

Texas Food & Wine Alliance’s Alliance Academy session with Casero Austin’s Jackie Letelier
Filming a Texas Food & Wine Alliance’s Alliance Academy session with Casero Austin’s Jackie Letelier
Courtesy of Texas Food & Wine Alliance

Food and wine nonprofit organizes chef-taught classes

“The early days of the pandemic were so confusing,” said Brandon Watson, the communications director at the Texas Food & Wine Alliance (TFWA). The organization, a recent expansion of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, has a roster of annual food and drink events, such as Wine & Swine and the Austin Food and Wine Festival, all of which had to be canceled.

The nonprofit planned to announce its expansion across the state during its April event, Live Fire, but quickly had to reconfigure the rest of the year. It also had to deal with massive financial losses, as the nonprofit organization receives funds from the canceled Austin Food and Wine Festival (where tickets cost between $250 and $625 per person).

TFWA’s larger events — like the cocktail-centric Official Drink of Austin, which usually takes up multiple hotel floors with dozens of restaurants offering drinks — would be logistically impossible to move online. One event, the Culinary Arts Career Conference geared toward local high school students in culinary programs, had a format that could translate to an online format easily: keynote speeches, panels, and demonstrations. However, due to revenue challenges, TFWA was unable to offer the event this year.

TFWA turned its focus to smaller events. This resulted in the Alliance Academy, with pre-recorded cooking demonstrations from Texas chefs followed by a live Q&A on Zoom. As part of these classes, the organization partnered with restaurant meal kit company Assembly Kitchen to send attendees ingredients for the dishes and cocktails they would make.

Since the series launched in September, Watson says he’s been happy with ticket sales. The bulk of the sales goes to the restaurant and Assembly Kitchen, with the rest going to TFWA — and this is by design. The point isn’t to generate a lot of income for the nonprofit; rather, it’s all about supporting the restaurants and local food systems. TFWA uses money from ticket sales and other fundraising activities to help out service industry relief initiatives like Austin Shift Meal and Tito’s Food For Friends, and to raise $14,000 for grants that support restaurants and small businesses in the culinary ecosystem.

Attendees created their own cocktails while participating in a Zoom dinner with the Elephant Table
Attendees created their own cocktails while participating in a Zoom dinner with the Elephant Table.
Chelsea Francis

An underground supper club keeps it small and personal

Elephant Table, a dinner party club series in Austin, also made a quick transition to virtual events. “There was no roadmap or timeline for how long this was going to impact everyone,” says founder Hope Furst, “but we had a feeling the in-person cancellations weren’t going to be short-lived.”

Hosting dinner parties online wasn’t easy at first, with digital logistic issues and the difficulties of helping guests feel connected. Elephant Table struggled to get registrants to actually log in to to the Zoom call at the scheduled time. Part of the solution was to keep events small — fewer than 30 people — and always start with round-robin introductions, so everyone has a chance to talk and feel like they participated instead of just being a viewer. “People want to feel like they have a voice,” explains Frust, “even at a virtual table.”

To further that link between the guests and the event, Furst also puts effort into the thoughtfully decorated, personalized party packs for attendees. They contain all the ingredients for that evening’s event (from lotería cards and tacos to a bagel brunch spread, depending on the theme), and are delivered a few hours before the event to ramp up excitement. “We want it to feel like it’s their birthday,” she says, when they receive their package.

After success in the virtual realm, Furst started pitching Elephant Table’s services to food and beverage brands to help them reach a targeted audience, working with companies such as Oatly and Vital Farms. She reports that both branded and nonbranded events are mostly selling out, though nonbranded events generally only cover costs, while the branded events make money.

Moving a big barbecue festival to everyone’s personal backyards

For Texas Monthly, which puts on the highly anticipated annual Texas Monthly BBQ Festival every fall, it was an easy decision to pivot to a virtual event, given the importance of the festival for thousands of meat-loving Texans, but then it became a question of how to logistically host the event safely for attendees and pitmasters. With little virtual event experience apart from livestreaming events, the team turned to event production partner Duty Now for the Future and the barbecue restaurants themselves for ideas.

The resulting virtual festival, which takes place from October 24 through November 1, is split into several different offerings. First, there’s the delivery barbecue box, which contains cooking tools and curated ingredients from the publication’s top smoked meats restaurants (think: Snow’s BBQ’s barbecue sauce or mesquite-smoked jerky from Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ). Then, many of the restaurants throughout the state will offer special festival dishes on their menus from October 24 through 31 (in Austin, this means a Frito pie from Micklethwait Craft Meats and a resurrection of the famed mac and cheese-stuffed quail from LeRoy & Lewis, among others). Finally, ending the festival is a free livestreamed event hosted by barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, with interviews, prizes, and a Q&A, with an accompanying drink kit delivered by Spec’s.

Tori Schach, the consumer marketing manager of Texas Monthly, recognized the importance of supporting pitmasters who have lost business due to the pandemic, which is why a portion of the festival requires ordering from restaurants and trucks. The festival is also partnering with nonprofit Feeding Texas by encouraging attendees to donate.

The Toro Bravo Frito pie from Micklethwait Craft Meats
The Toro Bravo Frito pie from Micklethwait Craft Meats
Micklethwait Craft Meats/Facebook

Events are still events, whether online or in person

At the end of the day, Texas food events have adapted to the new reality that is living through a pandemic, which means staying connected while staying at home. Furst says she misses the energy in the room during in-person events. “You can’t reach people on quite the same level with virtual events,” she says.

Watson says that event guests are not the only ones who miss in-person events. He has found that chefs enjoy the opportunity to interact one-on-one with attendees outside of a restaurant environment, and but that they miss “the camaraderie and fun” of in-person events.

Though it’s uncertain when it will be possible to once more rub elbows with chefs and eat meals close by to other people, those who plan events will surely adapt along the way.

Update, November 2: This article has been updated to reflect that the Culinary Arts Career Conference is not taking place this year.