Minnesota Cheese Festival organizer talks about lessons learned

Categories: Festivals

What's a cheese festival without a little controversy?  
Minnesotans love their summer festivals. It makes sense. This is a horrifically cold and awful place to live (It's true. Admit it. Give up the ghost. Winter is awful) most of the year, so we try to cram as much fun as we can into our two habitable months. This sense of urgency might also explain why when a new festival gets off to a bit of a shaky start, a lot of us get pretty upset.  The Hot Dish visited with Whitney McChane, the organizer of this year's inaugural Minnesota Cheese Fest to discuss how the event went, what she will change for next year, and the emotion behind some of the criticism the festival received. 

Let's dive right in and deal with the nasty side of things right away. There were some people who were pretty upset about the long lines at this year's event. Were you surprised at how upset people were? 

The lines were insane and completely unexpected by me and all the vendors who participated. It was something none of us had ever seen before, and may simply be a product of our "Minnesota nice" mentality. We tried to break the lines up, told folks to just grab a sample and go, and even brought cheese to the people waiting in line. Nothing we did could break up the lines, and some who tried to grab-and-go with samples were verbally attacked by other people in line. So I'm not surprised that people were upset -- on the contrary, I truly sympathize. Folks expected an awesome Sunday afternoon filled with great cheese, and many didn't get that. But I was surprised by the outright insults. It's been hard to answer each person individually and not become emotional when I'm being called lazy, greedy, and the worst event organizer in history. This was a labor of love and will continue to be. While I can't say I enjoy being lambasted, I can't let those comments ruin a great concept that so many Minnesotans want to be a part of. I'm proud of the feats we accomplished and refuse to give up on our cheesemaking community as a result of unforeseen circumstances, or people with nothing better to do than hurl insults into cyberspace.

Did the venue meet your needs? Any plans to move to a different location?

The International Bazaar at the Fairgrounds was -- and will continue to be -- an ideal venue for the Cheese Festival. At most food, wine, or cheese events, vendors are limited to 8 to 10 feet facing the crowd. At the Bazaar vendors have 30 to 40 feet facing the crowd, so they can accommodate many more guests. We include parking in the cost of the festival ticket, so there's no added expense for guests to park at the grounds. In addition, the grounds provide expansion opportunities that were always planned for Year 2 of the Cheese Festival. Specifically, we'd like to rent the Dairy Building and subsidize the cost for farmstead cheesemakers to bring some of their livestock to the event. It will provide a more immersive experience for families, and offer guests activities beyond the International Bazaar so we can spread the crowd out a bit.

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Obviously this was the first year for the Minnesota Cheese Festival. What did you learn?

Minnesotans are far more obsessed with cheese than we expected. They behaved differently at this event than what we expected (based on other food/wine/cheese events). Well over half of the crowd arrived at or before noon -- we actually opened 15 minutes early because the ticket line was wrapping around the block. And unlike other similar events, people didn't want to just walk up to a table, grab a sample, and move on. They wanted an intimate experience where they could meet the cheesemakers, face to face and chat about cheese. It's clear they wanted this intimate exchange because the Main Stage "Meet the Cheesemaker" sessions weren't as much of a draw as we had hoped.

Did the festival overall meet your expectations?

I would say it far exceeded all expectations, and that in a few ways we were a victim of our own success. We had the size of crowd we expected (3,407 to be exact), but the majority of guests showed up at or before the very beginning of the event; very few guests arrived between 2:30 and 6 p.m. Minnesotans' passion for cheese is unlike anything I or the vendors have ever seen. Maybe we've all been so secretly jealous of Wisconsin that it's a hunger that's been building up inside of us for years --no pun intended. People here are obviously crazy about cheese and have an emotional attachment to this food.

What was your goal for this first festival?

First and foremost, the goal was never to make a profit. We brought in about $3.25 a ticket, given 91% of sales were through LivingSocial and Groupon. (These advance sales were necessary so vendors could determine the proper amount of product to bring.) And I personally, despite spending well over 1,000 hours on this event, have not been paid a penny. The only person who did get paid was our incredible PR and event coordinator, Rebecca McRoberts -- she started as a volunteer and ultimately made less than half of what folks on minimum wage make. The small amount of profit that remains this year will be reinvested into the cheesemaking community through small-scale events this fall and used to subsidize those farmstead cheesemakers who will bring their livestock to the event in Year 2.

That said, one goal was to provide cheesemakers and artisan vendors with a positive experience, so we could engage many more vendors for Year 2. And by positive experience I mean a well-organized and clearly communicated event, sizable crowd, great publicity coverage, and strong sales. It took calls, letters, emails, and more calls to well over 300 cheesemakers and artisan food/goods producers just to secure the 32 we had with us this year, so it was no easy feat. Many cheesemakers were not convinced that Minnesotans would attend this event and buy their product. Given our vendors all had an incredible time, we expect to have nearly double the number of cheesemakers and artisan vendors for Year 2.

Another goal was to leave every guest with a smile, so they'd be excited to come back for Year 2. Clearly, we didn't succeed here. Many guests left happy, but I suspect that more guests did not. Even so, nearly all guests left with the understanding that it was a first-year event, and we're committed to an incredible and improved experience for Year 2.


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10 comments
Guest
Guest

The Attorney General? What, pray tell, possible jurisdiction do they have over events like this? If you don't have a clue as to what you're posting, why do it? Is ignorance a virtue these days?  As for class action lawsuits...well, let's just say that that kind of reaction is indicative of an almost total disconnect from reality. Refund info has been offered in this and other forums multiple times; what more do you want? Suck it up; you got burned. Get a refund and shut the hell up!

Guest
Guest

Julie - With all due respect, the event coordinator offered refunds and/or tickets to next year's event already, before this article was even posted (I think I saw it on FB the Monday after the event).  I think the refund contact information was posted a couple times already in response to your comments.

YeahYeahYeah
YeahYeahYeah

This isnt China. People form lines here. Honestly, how could the event coordinator find that suprising? Could someone explain to me how this wasnt a poorly planned and executed event?

YeahYeahYeah
YeahYeahYeah

Horrifically cold and awfull place to live most of the year? Ha, I think you will find a whole lot of us here disagree with you. Buy some long underware and a nice parka. Learn to ski (Alpine and Nordic). Go snowshoing. Dig a whole in the ice and catch some Northerns. Try snowmobiling. Check out the Winter Carnival (you can where your new Patagona Long Johns and puffy parka to it). If none of those things are of any interest to you, then yeah, I can see how Mn winter would scare you.

Getta Refund
Getta Refund

 Administrative Contact:       Mares, Whitney  @gmail.com       8000 Westwood Hills Drive       Unit 1618       Saint Louis Park, Minnesota 55426       United States       612-508-4602

Getta Refund
Getta Refund

You can write to request a refund to:    Administrative Contact:      Mares, Whitney  @gmail.com      8000 Westwood Hills Drive      Unit 1618      Saint Louis Park, Minnesota 55426      United States      612-508-4602

Julie
Julie

If I pay for tickets to a concert and the sound system is doesn't work, I would expect a refund.  If I pay for Twins tickets and they loose their game, I would have gotten exactly what I paid for a baseball game.  Your trying to make a similar correlation isn't appropriate.  I paid $30 for 2 tickets for a cheese tasting event.  I tasted ZERO cheese.  But this isn't just about me, it is about hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, more like thousands of people who had the same exact negative experience and it is about a company not doing the right thing and standing up and gracefully offering refunds or free passes to next years event.  I consider them selling tickets at 1:30 in the afternoon when they were already over crowded and couldn't handle the crowd they had the same as "stealing".  I understand that they had to honor the pre-paid tickets, but they should not have continued selling tickets when they knew for a fact the event was not working properly.  But they kept selling tickets at $15 per head. They should have turned people away.

sd
sd

The folks who want their money back because they didn't get what they paid for: if you paid major league baseball ticket money to go to a Twins game and they really got their faces rubbed in the dirt by the opposition, would you demand your ticket and concession money back? No one can guarantee a positive outcome at such events. You want one? Sign a contract. Then non-performance may give you a leg to stand on. This was a first-time event. Cut the promoters some slack and sit out next year to see if they learned some lessons.

David Foureyes
David Foureyes

Wait...were tickets $15 or $30? Your screed is almost illegible...we're only using one punctuation mark at the end of sentences now. Sounds to me like you got exactly $15 worth...walk into France44 with $15, tell me what you leave with...some smoked Tillamook cheddar and Ritz.

Enchilinda
Enchilinda

A few suggestions: 1)  Install multiple ATM 2)  Feature the more popular (beer and cheese pairing) speakers more than twice throughout the day 3)  Stay away from the "passport" format of the program.  I felt it lent an impression of structure where one wasn't intended  4)  Accept credit cards at the beer/wine/concessions if possible 5)  Encourage food trucks to feature menus with more "portable" food items due to limited seated dining space 7)  Consider an all-day or earlier-starting event--noon is never too early for anyone, and it showed in the concentrated numbers at the beginning 8) Please do this again next year!

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