Festival food: Why does it cost so much?

With the Lebowski Fest, Forecastle Festival and HullabaLOU all recently put to bed, you might think Louisville’s festival season is over until next summer, but you’d be wrong.

Don’t forget the Kentucky State Fair. Also, WorldFest is coming up on the riverfront on Labor Day weekend. Waterfront Wednesdays continue through September, and Jeffersontown celebrates the Gaslight Festival in the fall, too. In the late winter, it all starts again with St. Patrick’s Day, then Thunder, Derby, Abbey Road on the River and then — oops! — summer 2011 is upon us.
Do you fancy a hot dog? That’ll be $4, please. (Cue dramatic music.) A $4 festival hot dog is usually a pretty pedestrian affair: standard pup, standard white-bread bun, relish, onions and a flimsy paper carrier if you’re lucky. If you’re feeling peckish, you can add an order of fries for maybe $3 and a drink or a bottle of water for another $3, a grand total of $10 per person. So a family of four might enjoy a four-hot dog meal for $40. Yikes. You could probably feed hot dogs, fries and soft drinks to a whole family reunion in your backyard for under $40. So, what gives?
Well, the food vendor gives, mostly. She gives money to her food purveyor for the basic supplies, of course. She gives an hourly wage to her workers (for a three-day festival, that’s 12 hours a day, conservatively, at $10 or so per hour, about $360 for one worker for the weekend). She gives a booth space rental fee, often running into the thousands of dollars (a minimum of $2,000 at the Forecastle Festival, for instance). She’s forced to give a premium price for beverages to the food-service contract holder for the festival. According to Chef Dan Thomas who ran the backstage food service at Forecastle, vendors were required to purchase all their beverages, including bottled water, from Aramark Corp. (which had negotiated an exclusive contract for the festival with Coca-Cola). Aramark went on to charge vendors $2.75 per 20-ounce bottle, far more than you or I would pay for a two-liter at the convenience store. So, if you were thinking, “They are making a killing at $3 a bottle for water, that’s highway robbery!” — not so much.
She’s got to pay the Louisville Metro Health Department for a “temporary food service license” — something none of us should begrudge. It’s one of the most reasonable vendor expenses of the whole weekend. At a modest $25 for a three-day festival (that’s just over six hot dog sales), it helps protect us all from unsanitary practices that might make festival-goers sick with food-borne illnesses.
The vendor also needs refrigerated storage for her supplies. No food booth has enough cooler space to hold several hundred pounds of meat, mayonnaise and ice, so she has to beg, borrow or rent refrigerated space at a nearby restaurant; or she can rent a refrigerated truck to park nearby (another $1,000 or more).
So the next time you belly up to that festival food booth and have the urge to cringe when you read the prices on the board, think about all that goes on behind the scenes, and smile at whoever’s handing you your gyros. They are probably hot, tired, overworked and envying you for being on the other side of the counter with your friends or family, enjoying your day off.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of the university’s new residence hall, Gardiner Point.