Food festivals seem to be popping up everywhere these days. Turn around and another city joins the ranks. But few nascent festivals can boast the buzz and the lineup of Feast Portland, whose inaugural event starts today and runs through Sept. 23. Launched by food festival veteran PR maven extraordinaire Carrie Welch (seriously, is there someone she doesn't know?) and co-founder Mike Thelin, and presented by Bon Appétit magazine, the new festival will feature 100 chefs and food personalities including big-time names — Inaki Aizpitarte, Mark Bittman, April Bloomfield, Aaron Franklin, Amanda Freitag, Gabrielle Hamilton, Paul Kahan, Paul Qui, Adam Rapoport, Nancy Silverton, Shook and Dotolo, Andy Ricker — and is expected to draw between 8,000 and 10,000 people in its first year.
"Wait," you're asking. "Wasn't Carrie supposed to be going out to Portland to open a restaurant?"
"So what was the catalyst for the new festival? How did this all happen, and so quickly?"
Why coffee, of course. Lots of coffee.
In this interview with Welch, she lays out details and the philosophy behind the festvial, how she made new contacts in Portland and used previous relationships with chefs to make it happen, and why it's always important to try to take that cup of coffee with someone.
The Daily Meal: You and your partner were very successful in New York, so why did you decide to make this move? How did you make the decision to move to Portland?
Carrie Welch: Jannie and I moved to Portland to open a restaurant. Swear to God. We told everyone we know, including all of the celebrity chefs on Food Network that we were going west to settle down, open a restaurant, have a couple kids. Problem is, those things don't mesh! We both worked in restaurants for a bit — Jannie cooking in Brooklyn at Chestnut Restaurant in Carroll Gardens for two years (closed) and then at Lincoln Restaurant here in Portland with chef Jenn Louis. I worked weekends before I left Food Network doing wine tastings at an awesome wine shop, Smith & Vine in Carroll Gardens, and also was a hostess at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain for a couple months to try and build up my front-of-house experience. My previous restaurant experience was working the graveyard shift at Denny's during high school and college. When we got to Portland I did my research and dropped off résumés at 35 top restaurants around Portland and finally got a job as a private dining room server at Wildwood. They took a chance on me and knew there was a potential for some PR help down the line. I worked for three months before I realized I was a terrible server. I couldn't do simple addition, carry six glasses on a tray, or any of the things that really mattered in a restaurant. They were so patient with me and became my restaurant family. When I quit and asked if I could do their PR instead, they agreed and Little Green Pickle was born. I convinced Jannie to leave the kitchen and join me and it's been about a year now. We have 25 clients, four staff in Portland, two freelancers in New York City and it's been a wild, fun ride!
TDM: How has Jannie contributed? What's her role in the festival? Is she cooking?
CW: Oh Jannie. She is integral to the process. Cooking? Why yes. Jannie will be assisting Duff Goldman at the Sandwich Invitational making Chef McDuffins — classic fried egg sandwiches. Killer! She's our in-house designer for all things Feast. We were lucky enough to have Wieden + Kennedy create our branding overall through our relationship with Travel Oregon, the local state tourism board, and Jannie has taken their vision and run with it. She also single-handedly created our website and basically puts up with all of our changes and opinions on a daily basis.
TDM: About a year after moving you've launched Feast, what seems to be turning into a major festival. How did this happen?
CW: When we moved and we were both working in restaurants, living in a North Portland share house with five other adults, a small child, and some questionable animals, I met a guy named Mike Thelin. He's from Portland, does food events, and even has a gig commenting on Cooking Channel's Unique Eats show. A bunch of our mutual foodie friends where like — you guys have to meet! So we did what Portlanders do — had coffee. (I had a lot of coffee when I first moved here!) It was during one of our first coffees when I eagerly asked Mike, "When is the festival?" He was like — which one? There are a lot of festivals in Portland — a few for beer, some for wine, and a couple for food. But, not one that brings the whole food and drink scene together. There was an opportunity there that Mike had seen for a few years, he just hadn't found the right person to start a region defining food and drink festival with. So, not really knowing each other at all, but sort of trusting the luck in finding ourselves in the right city at the right time, we decided to go for it.
TDM: You've been in charge of PR for lots of festivals. How was that helpful in getting this one started?
CW: It's been really helpful. We are creating a lot of Feast Portland from scratch because we're trying to reinvent some of the traditional festival formats, but both Mike and I have been extremely lucky to work on some of the country's top festivals in the past. And, we've worked with the best festival founders like Lee Schrager (South Beach, New York City) and producers who we have learned a TON from and are really supportive of what we're doing in Portland. Lee is coming to Feast, which I'm just thrilled about, and judging our Sandwich Invitational event. During my time at Food Network I was entrusted to oversee our role in food festivals and I'm excited that a few of my former coworkers and friends will make it out to Feast to check out what we've created. Having the experience of being on the other side as a title sponsor — when I was working on festivals at Food Network, I managed our title sponsorship of the South Beach festival and helped get the New York City festival off the ground — has been invaluable. I know what our partners want, so Mike, our team and I work really hard to make it come to fruition.
TDM: How have your relationships with the chefs changed?
CW: I feel like I have a great extended family and while I'm not at Food Network anymore, everyone there is still a part of my life. I joke with people in the food industry that all roads lead back to Food Network. It's true — one of my first projects as a freelancer was to do PR for a Portland chef's battle on Iron Chef America. I knew I was in the right place! I've seen many of the chefs at other festivals I've attended with my clients and for research (tough life, I know) and it's all hugs and love. I have developed new relationships with chefs I've admired over the years and am excited to extend my chef family because I seriously think chefs are the most talented, creative, motivated people in the world.
TDM: Have you used previous relationships with chefs to make Feast happen?
CW: For Feast Portland, Mike and I both made a commitment to put our relationships, contacts, pretty much everything on the line to make it the best festival it can possibly be. So I emailed a lot of the chefs I know, both from my time at Food Network and otherwise. It was the most thrilling feeling to receive chef confirmations for Feast because it's something we're creating from nothing, it's totally ours. And it was exciting to know that chefs I've worked with before and some I've admired for years wanted to come and do this thing with us.
TDM: How did you make these new contacts so quickly in Portland?
CW: Coffee! I've learned a lot about doing business in Portland, and it's different than New York City. It's more personal — you meet face to face, for coffee, happy hour (have you heard about our happy hour here? Starts at 3 p.m.!), or dinner and you get to know each other. In New York City, people immediately ask you what you do, what company you're with. In Portland, they ask you how you are, do you have a family, what are you into. Work comes a little later in the conversation. Luckily, a lot of Portland conversation centers around food, so I was right up in there and glad to be around people who love food as much as I do, if not more. I was trying to make connections when I got to Portland and a lot of people helped me out by introducing me to their friends and contacts here, and I emailed a trusted person I worked with back east and asked her — how do I do this? How do I get to know everyone and, you know, quick? She said, "Girl, you need to pound the pavement, old-fashioned style. Go for coffee, drinks, whatever it takes." So I did.