In case you missed the news, the Richmond Bacon Festival happened in Shockoe Bottom’s 17th Street Farmers’ Market on Sunday, June 9 and a lot of people turned out for the first-time event.
I mean, a lot of people. Crowds of people. Hordes of people. Tons of people. According to organizers, more than 17,000 people*, to be exact.
This should have been a surprise to exactly no one.
Within minutes of the festival announcement, two and half weeks ago, it was clear that Richmonders were excited about the prospect of a bacon festival. Very excited.
Within hours of the announcement, hundreds had RSVPed on the Facebook event page and a quick post about the event on Richmond.com (who was not affiliated with the event) had over 10,000 Facebook shares by the next morning. Excitement about the event only grew from there.
When they announced the event, organizers expected 5,000 – 6,000 attendees. By last week, they’d upped the estimate to 10,000 - 12,000 attendees.
Again, more than 17,000 showed up.
The Richmond Bacon Festival was put on by a variety of local organizations, according to Denise Bird, owner of Bird Marketing, who helped plan the event.
According to Bird, the folks at Brown Distributing brought the event idea to the Enrichmond Foundation, a nonprofit that works on “special initiatives in the City of Richmond” (and who are in the process of taking over management of 17th Street Farmers’ Market from the city), Enrichmond brought in the city, and the city and Enrichmond brought in Bird to help plan and execute the event. According to Facebook, Devils Backbone Brewery, K95, Rock96.5KLR and Style Weekly were also “presenters” of the event.
Midway-through Sunday's festival, in an effort to control crowds, organizers shut down festival admission at its two main points of entry, on Main Street, implementing a 20-people-out, 20-people-in policy, though entry was still open through the sides and back of the festival.
The restaurants lining 16th and 17th streets reached fire code capacity and implemented their own in/out policies, as did other Shockoe Bottom restaurants as overflow trickled through the neighborhood.
The reaction on social media was immediate – traffic, parking issues, long lines, confusing lines, not enough food, not kid-friendly-enough, too hot, and the crowds; OMG, the crowds – Richmonders, even ones not at the festival, lit up Facebook and Twitter.
Some took the crowds in stride, noting on social media that event organizers had told attendees to be prepared for crowds; some attributed the over-crowding to a first-time event mistake; and some attendees were furious, demanding apologizes and refunds for gas and parking costs.
As the dust settled, a consensus emerged – the event was a great idea, but way, way too crowded for the venue, Richmonders Tweeted, Instagramed and Facebooked. No one, it seemed, liked the venue.
In my opinion, they were right.
17th Street Farmers’ Market, as it stands now, is a terrible venue for that type of event. Leaving aside the parking nightmare that is Shockoe Bottom, the market is setup to shade vendors and allow a free-flow of shoppers to browse stalls in the sun, shop and go.
Even including the side streets, the market is by no means setup for dozens of food vendors and thousands of people standing in lines and looking for a place to eat food.
Currently, the market and the side streets have a capacity for roughly 3,500 - 4,000 people, according to George Bolos, 17th Street Marketing Manager. That was the original plan for the Richmond Bacon Festival.
When the event organizers upped their attendance estimates, they also added vendors and expanded the event space to include parts of East Franklin, upping the capacity to 6,500 people and expecting some ebb and flow with crowds, according to Bird.
Was that enough based on estimates? It’s difficult to say.
It’s difficult to judge attendance and ebb and flow for first-time events. The best any event planner can do is look at similar events, do some smart promotion, and hope for little competition and good weather.
In the case of the Richmond Bacon Festival, they not only got great weather, but they got it following two days of rainy weather – on a day with no event competition.
As for similar events, it looks like the festival planners might have been thinking more Brunswick Stew Festival, another one-day food festival in 17th Street Farmers’ Market with a couple dozen cash-only food vendors, live music and beer, which gets roughly 6,000 – 7,000 attendees each year.
They got something closer to Shamrock The Block, an event in the same space with more of an emphasis on music and beer than food; its 2013 attendance was 30,000 – 40,000.
So what happened? What’s the difference between bacon and Brunswick Stew? Or bacon and barbecue?
The Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival also happened last weekend, at Richmond International Raceway, one of the venues many suggested to replace 17th Street next year for the Bacon Festival. Beer, Bourbon and BBQ festival had 60 beers, 40 bourbons and tons of dishes from a whole different part of the pig.
Its estimated attendance on Saturday, June 8: 8,000 (note: they charged an admission).
So why did a bacon festival draw twice the attendance of barbecue or Brunswick Stew?
Because it’s bacon. It’s bacon! I don’t know why. I don’t understand it, but people love bacon. Clearly Richmonders love bacon.
Richmonders love festivals. They love free festivals. And they love downtown festivals (I think it’s worth noting that when the Italian Street Festival was moved out of Church Hill to RIR, attendance lagged. Organizers moved it back to the city last year. To 17th Street Farmers Market).
And, again, they love bacon.
Should the event organizers have know that a free Richmond Bacon Festival in downtown Richmond was going to be popular? Absolutely. Should they have known it was going to be that popular? I’m a maybe on that.
The event planners did a lot of things wrong.
- Having three beer lines was ridiculous. At the Richmond Bacon Festival, there was a line to be carded and wrist-banded, one for beer tickets, and one to actually get the beer. No, people, no.
- There was no reason to have existing 17th Street vendors there, especially once the crowds were anticipated. People wanted food and beer and water and shelter. No one wanted a hand-knitted toaster coozie or a bundle of sage incenses.
- Parking. Suburbanites came. They don’t know Shockoe Bottom. You know they don’t know Shockoe Bottom. Signs for parking and someone directing and pointing people toward paid lots would’ve helped.
- Parking thieves. Guys, it happens. You know it happens. City-dwellers turn an abandoned space into a lot and park freely and two hours later some kid shows up and starts charging suburbanites to park where it should be free. Someone should be in charge of that. At least near the market.
- More room. Obviously more room, but just by eye-balling it, Franklin should’ve been closed all the way to 18th Street. There was no reason not to do it as no one could access the one-way street anyway.
- Beer knowledge. There were something like 18 beers available, but no one knew that until they got to the front of the line, which slowed the beer line (which was the fastest moving line) as people tried to decide.
And the event planners did a lot of things right:
- Beer! They had 18 beers available! This wasn’t a buy-some-frozen-food / grab-a-Budweiser event. This was a Brown Distributing event, with smart, fantastic craft beers – and a selection of them.
- Food! The food selection was smart, diverse and fantastic – pork belly, bacon and chocolate, oysters dusted with bacon, hand-shucked oysters - this event could truly grow to be a very Richmond foodie event.
- Venue. Now I’m going to reverse argue for the venue. 17th Street Farmers’ Market as it exists now is a terrible space for an event with that kind of crowd. That said, 17th Street Farmers’ Market is changing. Plans are in the works now for a major renovation that should start … well, it’s unclear. Likely once we get word on the baseball stadium. But possibly this year, a major renovation will happen at 17th Street Farmers’ Market.
- Location. The important thing about 17th Street Farmers’ Market as a venue, because the market itself is incidental, is that the event drove people to Shockoe Bottom while it's in one of its many incarnations of Richmonders neglecting it. And Richmonders were reminded that there are fantastic restaurants and things happening in that part of the city – and that we ought not to be afraid to go there. This is everything, Richmond.
- Bacon. They had a bacon festival! Yay Richmond! Finally!
So what happens next?
Well, it's not going to move. It's unlikely to move.
Enrichmond, as we reported after the Earth Day festivals, is strongly encouraged to host their events at 17th Street Farmers’ Market, so it is unlikely that, going forward, the venue for Richmond Bacon festival will change.
But organizers, according to Bird, are meeting this week to discuss plans for next year’s Richmond Bacon Festival and how they can improve.
The discussion will include:
- More space for next year
- An additional beer truck
- More food vendors
- Kids’ activities
- Additional parking options, like asking the state to open their lots
- Possible parking shuttles
- Different event layout
But all and all, the event organizers were pleased with how the event turned out, Bird said, especially for a first-year event.
Vendors, though most ran out of food, were also pleased.
Lee Gregory, chef / co-owner of The Roosevelt, said he and his crew served over five people per minute for two hours before they ran out of pork belly sliders. Gregory said he’ll definitely do the event again; he’ll just come twice as prepared next time.
Paul Cassimus, owner of King of Pops, who ran out of pops about an hour before the event ended, said he loved the event and the opportunity to get “creative making bacon-centric dishes.”
And Richmonders, the ones who were able to work their way through the crowds to get to the food, liked what they ate – and drank.
Yes, the first Richmond Bacon Festival was hot and crowded, but you know what, everyone should’ve expected it to be hot and crowded. Everyone. We all knew it would be. Just not that ... you know, hot and crowded.
It seems like no one fully appreciated Richmonders love of bacon.
But guess what, Richmond, they do now. They do now.
* Original estimates from the event organizers on Sunday's attendance were 15,000 - 17,000 people; they've since upped the to "more than 17,000."