Throughout the year, Toronto diners are treated to night markets, amateur cook-offs, festivals that celebrate ribs, ramen, food trucks, as well as all things spicy and bacon-y. But as food events wind down for the incoming winter, some organizers are wondering how to stay afloat in a market that seems to have already reached its saturation point.
It was two years ago when Hassel Aviles organized the first Toronto Underground Market (TUM) at the Evergreen Brick Works, a huge gathering of aspiring home cooks showcasing bite-sized samples to the public in hopes of catching their big culinary breaks. It was massively successful, and a number of vendors (La Carnita, Fidel Gastro’s, Hot Bunzz, Rock Lobster Food Co.) eventually became full-time restaurateurs. Sure, more established food events like Taste of the Danforth, Toronto Ribfest, and Toronto Taste had been around for well over a decade but, since the launch of TUM, smaller street-food events have emerged in droves.
“There was a saturation point that started last year and this past spring, every [event] started to take a hit,” says Suresh Doss, Food Truck Eats organizer and author of Street Eats Toronto, a guidebook to food trucks and other street-food vendors in the city. “People are getting tired of the same thing over and over again … you’re seeing so many street food–themed events with trucks serving the same menus, so it’s going to dilute the interest.”
Last month, Doss organized the second annual AwesTRUCK food truck awards at Fort York, where dozens of food trucks from across the province congregated to an expected mob of 4,000. And while crowds did come out—despite the rain—Doss noticed tickets weren’t selling as quickly as last year.
Others are feeling the pinch, as well. Food blogger Abbey Sharp got into events with her semi-regular series, Abbey’s Kitchen Stadium, in which professional chefs duke it out in an Iron Chef–style cook-off. The finals for the latest edition took place this past Sunday.
“Coming to events so often and blogging about them, I wanted to support the budding food scene in Toronto and the rise in food events helped facilitate that,” she says. “TUM brought so many opportunities to young food entrepreneurs, and I wanted to continue to help with that, but now I think we’ve reached a point where enough is almost enough. Even the chefs are overwhelmed with requests [from event planners].”
Another issue Sharp raises is that, with so many events happening across the city, she’s feeling the pressure to charge less. “As event planners, we need to be more creative about how to offer more bang for your buck,” Sharp says. “I’ve been able to keep the price down at $10 as an entry fee and still give a portion of that to charity. Even then, I’m not sure we’ll be able to charge anything next year. We’ll have to bring on more sponsors or donations. That’s the route we have to take and, if we’re all doing that, sponsors will get overwhelmed, too. There are only so many sponsors out there that can provide product or cash.”
Both Doss and Sharp agree that food events are currently going through an experimental phase but, for them, the key is to offer unique experiences.
“I have to believe that the cream will rise in the end,” says Doss. “If an organizer tries to do a monthly event, they’ve already hit that saturation point, so maybe they’ll organize a quarterly event with higher-quality food to bring back the attendance.”
For her future events, Sharp is looking outside of Toronto, where pop-ups are scarce and the food scene isn’t tired of pork belly and ramen.
“The feedback I got from friends who live outside the downtown core is that these events are amazing simply because they don’t have anything going on there,” says Sharp. “When the competition is so low, you have a little bit more freedom to charge more or not worry if you’ll sell tickets, because you’re one of the few people running events there.”
From the vendor’s side, Mitchell Stern of pop-up and Midtown food stall Hot Bunzz has seen an influx of inexperienced organizers approaching him to participate in their events, sometimes resulting in less than stellar sales and unsold food going to waste. Like the others, Stern sees fewer food events happening less frequently in the near future, but with better food in an attempt to attract diners once the initial excitement of pop-up events wanes.
As for the person most credit with getting people excited about food events again, TUM’s Aviles sees this as less of downward trend and more of “a state of being in Toronto.”
“The initial demand was abnormal, and it was exciting to live through that,” she says. “Even though we increased the price earlier this year, we never had trouble getting 1,500 people in. Initially we were selling out at 2,000, so I’m okay going to 1,500. I still get flooded with emails from people wanting to do TUM and we’re just trying to find that sweet spot like any business. We’re still pretty new, and it’s normal to have ups and downs.”
Aviles doesn’t consider herself “threatened” by the slew of newer events in the last two years like Crave TO, TO Food Fest, Toronto Poutine Fest, and Abbey’s Kitchen Stadium. “If someone does their own spin that’s new and different, that’s great. It just comes from living in a city where you can’t always expect to be the hot new thing. It’s more opportunities for new vendors, which is what my goal is at the end of the day.”
But like the restaurant industry itself, there’s an unpredictability that exists—none of the organizers or vendors know precisely what’ll happen next year.
“It worked for a year, but all trends come and go, so maybe it’s time to evaluate how Toronto does food in 2014,” says Sharp. “Maybe it’s not the big food pop-up stuff that we’re used to. We’ve seen it, waited in line, bought the tickets, and now what’s next? It’s just the matter of either going outside or rethinking the model of doing food.”
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