Friday, October 7, 2016

My New Jersey VegFest Experience

When I heard that someone was planning a vegfest in New Jersey I was excited. The biggest problem with New York vegfests always seems to be that the space is too small and the event space too crowded. If there's anything New Jersey has to offer, it's space. But as soon as I heard the tickets were $39 I was disappointed to the point of apathy. I've spoken at length about my thoughts on charging admission to vegfests, most recently here, but after much inner dialogue, I decided to purchase tickets to the the inaugural NJ vegfest when they dropped the ticket price from $39 to $25- $39 tickets for those wanting to hear Dr. Fuhrman speak. In the end I'd decided that $25 each for VM and I seemed worthy of a look-see, particularly because the organizers had begun touting goodie bags for the first 1000 people to purchase tickets and I love goodie bags. More on that later.

It being suburbia and all, we- like most attendees, entered the Morristown Hyatt from the parking garage. There was no signage, nothing pointing to the lobby as a check-in area, and no one to greet and direct. We ultimately asked a policeman, who pointed us toward what turned out to be the vendor room. We were stopped at the door, tickets in hand, by 3 organizers/volunteers who, in unison, asked us for wristbands we didn't know existed. They seemed exasperated already- this was only 15 minutes after the event had started, and pointed us towards the lobby. The group of us that had excitedly arrived at the door at the same time all ambled a little aimlessly in the general direction of the pointed finger, and then one of the volunteers decided to escort us.

When we arrived at the lobby, it was a bit of a clusterf*** of lines; VM immediately dubbed it "a disorganized mess." There were signs at eye level, but the crowd prevented you from being able to see that three lines were for pre-purchasers to show their existing tickets in order to acquire said wristbands and one very long one was to purchase tickets at the door. I can't imagine that the volunteers were blindsided by the turnout since they'd known 1000 tickets had been sold, but they seemed so nonetheless. They barely made eye contact- let alone greeted us with any excitement or welcome, so we were not exactly filled with warm fuzzies when it was our turn. We'd seen them handing out blue, vegfest totes which we'd assumed were the goodie bags, but they instead handed us each a small, flattened brown bag. We asked what it was and they insisted it was the goodie bag. When we asked specifically about the blue bags they told us those were only for people who had purchased $39 tickets. This seemed odd because the goodie bags were not advertised in tiers and so it seemed like a kind of a bait & switch.

We walked away, perplexed, and peeked inside the "goodie bags." Aside from 2 coupons and some stickers, the bags each contained various paper advertisements, a pack of smarties and a raw rev bar that I ultimately donated to an unsuspecting squirrel because it was not delicious. A crowd of others curious about the contents of the bags had joined us at the lobby table and we all looked at each other in shared disbelief. "$25?" one person lamented. "Seriously?" said another. In direct contrast to the information we had received, a fellow attendee shared that she had been told that the larger goodie bags were only for the first 100 tickets sold. We were all disappointed and perplexed; it wasn't a good way to begin the event.

I knew from a blurry NJ Vegfest facebook post that nearby Morristown Game Vault had donated a Ms. PacMan for the event, so I was able to gratefully decompress for a minute with my fave game before we went any further.

We then returned to the vendor space, which turned out to be two rooms. We entered the smaller room first, where most of the vendors were set up around the perimeter with a couple of tables that didn't require a set-up area behind them in the center. It was pretty packed there already- mostly thanks to the Ledgewood Loving Hut and their significant amount of offerings for a 4 X 8 conference table! We'd skipped breakfast, so we immediately partook in an order of crispy fried wontons, which were served by an exuberant and friendly bunch and tasted exactly as authentic as I'd hoped. We visited The Skylands Sanctuary table, entered a Whole Foods Raffle, and said hello to the hardest working man at the fest: Carlo from V Marks the Shop. It was a little awkward to eat the fantastic wontons while moving around a crowded space, but it was do-able and reminded me of a vegan-friendly street-fest, only indoors and vegan.

When we entered the 2nd room all of my positivity dissipated. The room was PACKED. I know what you're thinking, "Success!" Well, yes and no. Yes, this was definitely a success in terms of interest and attendees, but as far as claustrophobia and maximum occupancy were concerned...I began to scan the room for xanax samples in a panic. Others agreed.

There were vendors along the perimeter of this larger room, as well as some semblance of rows of vendors throughout. Most rows did not wrap around, so once you walked to the end of one, you'd hit a dead-end wall and have to retrace your steps back through the crowd in order to exit the row. Because many vendors who needed a private set-up area behind them had little or none, that meant that you might take a step back from waiting for your cauliflower wrap and broccoli & cheese empanada from fan-favorite Freakin Vegans, and inadvertently step into super-popular Yeah Dawg's prep area because there was just nowhere else to go. To add to the confusion, a handful of vendors dealt with intermittent power outages that didn't seem to help tensions any. The most perplexing part of it all was that since quite a few vendors had backed out (including stars Peaceful Provisions, Cinnamon Snail), it left you wondering where exactly they would have possibly fit.

Most of the vendors had signs hanging from their tables or table top that were obscured by the sheer volume of people, which caused attendees to cluster once they could finally squeeze in near a table- happy for the opportunity to peruse offerings and to have even the most rudimentary of conversations with vendors where possible. Unfortunately, this kind of necessary standstill was terrible for the small remaining path left through which other attendees were left to navigate past. Tables offering food samples? Forget about it: bottleneck central. There were so many great things to see and partake in, but very little opportunity to do so leisurely. Perhaps I'm in the minority when I say I do not enjoy scenarios where the atmosphere can be described best as frenzied.

But, we sucked it up and squeezed through: making small talk with fellow attendees where possible and grabbing snacks as we went. But therein lay the next problem. Sure there were plenty of prepared foods to purchase, but where to enjoy them? There was seating for about 40 outside the front entrance of the first vendor room, but for the people who had already made it through to the back of the second, crowded room, there was only an escape hatch of sorts into a hallway where the options available were to sit on the floor or use an errant baby grand piano as a somewhat disrespectful, makeshift, bistro table.


It was here where we had another impromptu piano roundtable discussion with other attendees about the entrance fee. All agreed that the event was too crowded and the goodie bags were a joke. But, to my surprise, many had never been to a vegfest before and had no idea that some were free. One person, in particular, said that he was curious about vegetarianism and veganism, but could not convince any of his friends to join him since it meant paying a significant amount to participate in an event just out of curiosity. And therein lies the first problem. The second, of course, being that you shouldn't have to pay $25-$39 to attend an event so that you can spend money with vendors who also paid a significant fee to be there; there must be a happy medium. But, if you decide that it's okay to charge an exorbitant sum since, frankly, New Jerseyans seemed eager and willing to pay, at least do so in a manner that is appreciative: with decent goodie bags (hello, sponsors?) and room to breathe.

One respite from the craziness was our chat with Peter from Tamerlaine Farm Animal Sanctuary where I spied this tote that I will covet until I visit.

AND, this advertisement (shameless plug) for The Animal Show starring Michael Harren!

Always good to see Grape Cat and I finally snagged the retired Liberation is Love tee from Compassion Co.; such a beautiful design and it's finally mine. It was the chickens at Woodstock- Coco in particular, that convinced VM to finally go vegetarian.

We also grabbed some great desserts for later from Good Karma: this wowing cookie-filled rice crispy treat (yes, that's what I said) and a humongous smores.

We were so glad that Good Karma represented because they are quintessential NJ veg and there aren't many of those!

Oddly enough, though, there were quite a few NJ vegan institutions that were glaringly absent: Veganized, Positivitea, Veggie Heaven- to name a few. And, in an unexpected move, there were non-vegan restaurants offering vegan-friendly grub at this event. I'm as glad as the next guy to find vegan options at an omni restaurant where possible, but would have preferred more vegan owned & operated gems at a fest celebrating veganism.

In the end, VM and I made it to as many tables as possible, but ultimately gave up and went to the Hyatt bar to kill time before the speaker panel. We sidled up next to some veggies and ordered off the cocktail menu. The person who made our drinks curiously consulted the menu as she did so- ultimately telling us that she'd followed the ingredients, but had no idea how much of each to put in; it was rather mind-boggling. Then we walked through the lobby where a sharp object sticking out of one of the dirty and worn upholstered chairs ripped my pants. I notified the front desk and three people immediately ran out and called a meeting encircling the chair. I reminded them that my pants were ripped and the response was a shrug and an offer of a sewing kit. Keeping it classy, Hyatt Morristown! UPDATE 10/11/16: The Hyatt concierge contacted me via Twitter and was extraordinarily apologetic during our phone conversation. They have gone 100% above and beyond to make it right.

Finally it was time for the Future of Food Panel. I'd unknowingly spoken to the parents of the speaker, Liz Dee, of Smarties Candy Company & Baleine & Bjorn Capital LLC just prior to the panel; they seemed shocked and impressed by the event's turnout. As the granddaughter of the founder of Smarties, Liz shared that it was as a result of consumers contacting the company to discern the veganity of their products that she went vegan and she urged us to all keep contacting companies: asking questions and letting our voices be heard, because, in many cases there are whole departments dedicated to documenting and addressing such inquiries and requests. Also joining the panel, Dr. Ethan Ciment of Vegan Mos and Rachel Dreskin, Compassion in World Farming. Much of the panel was dedicated to talking about advances in vegan food sources that mimic non-vegan food. Hampton Creek was discussed at length (although no mention of the recent allegations), as well as The Impossible Burger, which has apparently cost millions to develop. There were some fireworks when one of the attendees admonished Rachel Dreskin during the Q&A for having made an innocuous comment in her welcome "lumping vegans and vegetarians together" even though "vegetarians are no better than meat-eaters." Rachel cited individual journeys in her response and I admired her kindness to both the source of the complaint and those not-yet-vegan members of the audience, but was really disappointed that someone would be so openly dismissive- particularly at an event intended to attract people to a compassionate lifestyle.

Luckily, just afterwards Chef Adam Sobel of The Cinnamon Snail spoke warmly and informally about genuine kindness and compassion. He imparted a refreshing amount of information about living a compassionate and non-violent life, as well as what that means beyond just following a standard vegan ethos. He was disarmingly open about his own family and lifestyle- which truly engaged the audience. As a contrast to the previous panel, it was interesting to hear his thoughts on the amount of waste in time, effort, and money that goes into relatively non-nutritious analogs that may act as gateway foods, but certainly seem not to provide either nourishment or new vegans commensurate with what goes into making them- from development to delivery (fossil fuels, etc.). It was so refreshing to hear this perspective and it gave me pause to consider that vegan panels, which are notoriously lacking in diversity, can use a shake up in other respects as well.

I was feeling quite zen and incredibly glad to end the event on such a high note, but halfway through the talk there began to be radio/walkie-talkie chatter...and then actual chatter between Hyatt employees behind a double door just beyond the podium. It was distracting and rude, but to Adam's credit he did not falter in the least. I thought it would have been helpful if a fest volunteer had been present to address the issue. When his Q&A was over, Adam offered to stay a bit to answer any further questions and hug anyone who wanted one, but Hyatt staff rushed in rolling large tables and stacking chairs from underneath people in such a flurry that one stack fell on the nearby equipment of a photographer in the haste. For me, this put an unwanted, anxiety-laden period at the end of the frenetic event.

Thankfully, there had been a lot of vegan messagewear to get me through the day; this was my favorite ensemble overall:

Don't get me wrong. I know it's hard to pull off an event of this magnitude and easy to come in as an observer and point out all that was wrong with it. And, to be fair, I'm also coming from a place where I am extraordinarily lucky to be part of a New York vegan community that offers me the opportunity to shop at many of these and other terrific, vegan vendors at my leisure and without a cover charge (glowing example: Vegan Shop Up). I do not dispute that New Jersey definitely needs a vegfest- it was made abundantly clear by the extraordinary response to this inaugural event. But surely there's a way to pull it off that doesn't perpetuate the idea that you have to be rich to be vegan, or come off as one group of vegans taking money from another. I wish the future of NJ Vegfest every success.

UPDATE: Since this posted, the people behind NJ vegfest- Kendra specifically, have initiated and continued a dialogue, been extremely open to any criticisms and understanding of critique, as well as intent on vast improvement for future events. To say I am impressed by their kindness and openness is an understatement.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Vegan Vendy Awards!

Sorry I've been a little MIA lately (oops, September); read up on my adventures at the Vegan Vendy Awards over on Vegansaurus!

Click on the "abby bean" tag for anything you may have missed!