Monday, April 4, 2011

First Ever NYC Vegetarian Food Festival

If you're like me, you've heard tell of incredible vegan and vegetarian food festivals and expos across the country and wondered, "Why not NY?"  Well, Sarah Gross thought the same thing, but did something about it: spearheading the first NYC Vegetarian Food Festival this past Sunday.

From the beginning it was advertised as a free event, but the week prior there was some confusion when buzz about VIP tickets started making the rounds.  The bottom line was that general admission was, in fact, free, but VIP tickets would get you expedited entry and more.  I chose not to purchase tickets to the free event.

We arrived at 10:15, fifteen minutes after the event was to have opened.  We approached from 6th Avenue, and the line looked average.  There were no signs posted, but luckily someone already waiting in the line quickly informed us that it was actually the VIP entry line we'd encountered, the general admission line being opposite.  When I tried to confirm with one of the security guards he grunted and motioned likewise with his head.  Oh how I love when people are rude and unhelpful for no reason!

In direct contrast, I was happy to turn around to find the venerable Cinnamon Snail parked right at the entrance to the fest, in all of its vegan splendor. 

Smiles and happiness there are a constant, and the pastry case was more incredibly stocked than ever. 

We immediately tried the new version of our favorite apple cider donut to confirm its continued yumminess- check!  So immediately, in fact, that they missed their photo opportunity.  I could spend the day eating my way through at The Cinnamon Snail, but at this point I glanced in the direction of the ominous general admission line and suggested that VM hop on while I acquired a few additional snacks from the adorable crew. 

Chef Adam didn't heed the warnings and his face did, indeed, "freeze like that"

When I proceeded to join VM on line I was surprised to find her all the way at 7th Avenue; that was some long line!  But everyone was excited, the sun was shining, and we had some Snail goodies to fortify us; we dug in for what we assumed would be a nominal wait.  In the meantime, the maple glazed with toasted coconut donut was as delicious as I remembered.

The cannoli was an unexpected treat: super crunchy shell filled with a cheesy cream jam-packed with chocolate it should be. 

Once an hour passed, a vibe of animosity surfaced- with people wondering aloud about the fairness of the two drastically disparate entry options: the elite, $50 option, vs. the free one, which had thus far created a line that extended around the avenue and down the next street.  The consensus seemed to be that a fair, nominal fee for everyone, about $5-$10, would have been the most equitable way to handle admittance, as well as to organize the crowd.  Eventually a little girl in front of us began decorating the sidewalk with her chalk and the tension was eased. 

A couple in front of her joined in, and began teaching those nearby some of the signs for animals in sign language. 

The wait continued pleasantly until someone- presumably from the Altman building- began walking down the line barking at people not to block shop entrances and accusing us of preventing customers from entering businesses.  First of all, there was no one beating down the doors to these places.  Secondly, the mob scene of vegans was the most action these shops have seen since the Bust Craftacular.  Thirdly, no need for rudeness, fella! 

The view at that point in front of us:

and behind:

This same unpleasant man reappeared after we had waited an hour and a half and were mere yards from the door: discouraging us from remaining in the line!  He tried to convince us that the wait would be another hour and a half, which was an absurd statement given the fact of how close we were.  Further, what kind of person attempts to turn away people so anxious to enter an event that they have already waited almost two hours to attend?  Not a nice one, that's who. 

As we finally entered the comically disproportionate 20 foot area of velvet rope at the head of the line, I believe we all felt a sense of accomplishment.  But then we witnessed a discouraging sight: people arriving, grimacing at the now monstrous line, making contact with someone inside, and being escorted right in.  You know, "people whose time is worth more than yours".  That certainly explained why the line took so long.  A friend has since dubbed the rest of us- the hoards who actually waited in the line- the "insignificant vegans".

When we (finally) excitedly entered we were handed a Whole Foods shopping bag, presumably to collect all of our samples and purchases, and began to make our way around.  First impression: mob scene.  Second, fire hazard?  The exterior tables were crowded but navigable- seemingly because they were informational tables (Mercy For Animals) and tables selling snacks (V-Spot).  But once you got anywhere near a table offering food samples, the crowding was oppressive.  Note to event coordinators: vegans + love of free food = mass chaos.

believe it or not: the calmest spot in the room

So, we did our best. 

We immediately spied the energetic Ayinde Howell of Petit Dejeuner (animal-shaped waffles and mac & yease fame) serving up samples of mock tuna.

Then I quickly bought a Peanut Butter Pit Bull because really, who can resist?

The fine folks of Foodswings were in the spirit, selling incredible looking meatball heroes, mini-cakes, etc.

We were hoping to catch Terry Hope Romero's demonstration, but the measly six (!?) "audience" chairs in front of the stage were positively crushed by a mass of standing people with the same interest, so we listened for a bit and moved on before we could be any more claustrophobically enveloped by the crowd.  It was still cool to see her in action, though.

At this point a rumor started going through the crowd that the sampling at many tables had ceased, with companies such as Organic Nectars deciding instead to charge $1 for a sample, I Eat Grass $5 for a small cup of mac.  While I fully support a minimal sampling policy and don't necessarily have a problem with a no sampling policy, changing course mid-stream seemed an inequitable, disjointed decision.

Unfortunately, there were way too many tables that we couldn't get anywhere near- such as Chicago Soy Dairy: blame the tight quarters combined with samples of nachos, mozzarella sticks, pizza, and hungry vegans.  Peanut Butter & Co. had an unfortunate location in an end corner, choked with people who were trying to get out of the aisle while masses were continuously streaming in.  I'm sure many people who wanted to take advantage of the incredible deal of 6 jars for $20 couldn't manage to get near enough to do so; I know I couldn't.  And was Sacred Chow there?  I thought they were expected to be but didn't see them.  It was so crowded that I wouldn't be surprised if they simply remained hidden from my view.  Actually, I'm sure there were plenty of exhibitors missed because the considerable crowd was so prohibitive.  And I didn't have the energy to make repetitive loops of the venue because, despite the doors being open, the temperature inside was stifling; we were quickly ready to go.

But we couldn't leave without visiting Sweet & Sara, despite how daunting the ginormous crowd surrounding her booth seemed.  Eventually, through a delicate balance of waiting our turn and squeezing into breaks between people, we reached the table.  A tremendous fan, VM positively shrieked.  Sara and her unparalleled generosity had struck again: her huge table was entirely covered with samples of whole marshmallows, hunks of rice crispy treats, wedges of s'mores, and chunks of rocky road bark

In addition to the massive free offerings, there was plenty for sale.  I hope that she had a monetarily successful event because, from what I witnessed, people were treating her table like their own personal buffet!  It's hard to resist, I know; but, come on.  Act like your mama raised you right!  I have since placed my order online because my desk is a much less hectic setting than the fest was, but I did manage to make an in-person purchase of the coveted Peep-like, sugar-coated Peepers & Skippers!

Come on, how cute are these?

And then, finally, we escaped back into the fresh air.  It turned out that we had spent less than half the time in the event than we had spent waiting on line for it.  As we caught our breath- we had taken only two steps outside the venue, an unnecessarily nasty security guard barked at us not to block the sidewalk and to move along immediately.  We were offended and disgusted, but there was some measure of satisfaction to be had in the consistency of their unpleasantness from before to after the event. 

As we walked away, we couldn't help but notice that the line stretched significantly farther than it had previously.  The same man who had attempted to discourage us earlier was still at it- telling the crowds that there was no way they'd make it in- impossible considering there was still 5+ hours to go, and he had since enlisted members of the security detail to do the same.  We noticed some folks leave the line as a result; others were undeterred.  I heard that a rumor circulated mid-afternoon that the event had been closed down; as far as I know it never did, but I can guess who started it.

We did notice that many people eschewed the tremendous, slow-moving fest line for the consistent and impressive (but fast-moving) one leading to The Cinnamon Snail.  There is no doubt in my mind that none of these folks left disappointed; it's Snail season once again!

I wish the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival much success, and want to congratulate them on creating an event that was so obviously overdue; the turnout was a testament to that.  I was happy to hear that they are open and appreciative to constructive feedback.  Keeping in mind that hindsight is 20/20, here's mine:

To the event organizers:
  • A cover charge is a must.  What are vegans good at even more than snacking on freebies?  Charity!  I can't imagine a soul would scoff at a cover that went towards animal rights and/or welfare.
  • Perhaps sell tickets to the demos and talks so that people get a chance to A) get in in time and B) get a seat to see/hear what they're interested in.  Even at just a couple of dollars a seat, the crowd would be much better organized.  Bonus: more money for charity!
  • Speaking of, with crowds like were witnessed Sunday, samples should be to-go.  This will alleviate prolonged table-lingering (and over-stuffing); if people like it, they'll make their way back to purchase.
  • A check-in for strollers, scooters, and skateboards would be ideal; space was almost too tight simply for bodies to pass, let alone these large and painful appendages.
  • More stuff to buy!  I think the idea that this was going to be a total freebie fest lent itself to the immense crowding.  For those of us looking not just for samples, but for exposure to new products, not enough vendors had things for sale.  And, many who did were too busy dealing with samplers to cater to customers. 
To the venue:
Why discourage people who have come to attend an event at your space; what is there to gain by alienating a captive audience?  Instead, set an example for your security staff to be pleasant and helpful rather than discouraging and rude.  This is an issue the festival organizers could not possibly have anticipated and shouldn't have had to; check yourself.

And to attendees:
  • Patience is a virtue: wait your turn; the line is for everyone.  
  • Gluttony is not: sample only your fair share; it is a taste, not a meal replacement.
Ultimately, the consensus seemed to be that the event was a long time coming; people are already looking forward to a larger and improved event next year!


  1. very well-written! It sounds like we interacted with the same security guard... what a completely horrible human being he was!

    darn, I wish I had gotten to the Cinnamon Snail early enough for cannoli... next time! :)

  2. Great review Ms.Bean! You pretty much summed up my experience. There were a couple vendors I had hoped to go back and purchase from, but I couldn't handle pushing through those crowds again. And I couldn't agree more about the strollers... they were being used as battering rams! Half the time I didn't even see kids in them

  3. leave strollers and the small, foul-smelling things that ride inside them at home!

  4. As I commented before, I think the Veg Fest should be held in one of the parks. Live music should be arranged and more "events" should take place. I also think that the events should feature average people rather than the "prominent vegans" that were featured in the donut eating contest. Enough with the vegan click already! Owning a vegan business or charity does not make a person any more vegan.

  5. Maybe the 2nd annual vegan festival will be better organized, now that they know how many people are likely to show up. Our Vegfest costs $8 and the demos and tastings are free. The place is packed, but there's minimal or no waiting to get in, but this isn't NYC!

  6. Anthony, what if there was an "I'm more vegan than you" contest? :-)

  7. To add to my earlier suggestions, there also needs to be more Vitamix's at the event. Perhaps an entire table or demonstration devoted to it's awesomeness.

  8. A very thorough and interesting recap! I was very curious how the festival was, and reading your post made me feel like I experienced it myself. Too bad about a lot of things, but like you, I would have put up with it all to get to the good stuff (FOOD!). Reminds me of Vegan Mania in Chicago last year, first year doing it, still many kinks to work out, but something I definitely hope they continue to put on!

  9. You weren't impressed with their 'prominence?'

  10. Abby, you hit it right on the nail. I arrived at 3:00pm and the line was as consistent as it was at 10:00am. While the majority of the crowd didn't seem too discouraged, I was turned off by the abrasive security. The security completely contradicted the purpose of the event, which in my opinion was to bring current vegans and vegetarians together and to introduce vegetarianism to those who were curious. To yell at people to leave the line (and then yell at them again to make room when they're on the Cinnamon Snail line!) is excessive and unnecessary, though I'm sure it was not to the organizer's knowledge. Here's hoping for a bigger and better festival next year!

  11. Thank you so much Abby. This is quite insightful and helpful to read. Expands on what I've already heard + read.


  12. Abby, at first I was sad to miss the festival due to my travel plans, but after reading this post and getting an anxiety attack in the process, I'm happy I did. I hope next year will be better organized. But if not, I'll be sure to bring a xanax.


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