For virtual Festival International, restaurants say it’s not about the money

Child smiles while eating funnel cake and sitting in a chair
A Festival-goer smiles over a plate of funnel cake Photo by LeeAnn Stephan

With Festival International going virtual this weekend because of coronavirus, the economic impact and tax revenue generated by the annual music festival will be missed. 

Aside from the music, the biggest draw is food. From official food vendors sprinkled around the Festival footprint to Downtown bars and restaurants, the people who make up the Festival food economy are figuring out ways to serve the community and keep the spirit alive. 

We asked a few restaurants on both sides of the fence what the financial impact looks like. The common theme? The money doesn’t matter as much as serving the community and keeping the spirit of Festival going. 

Poorboy’s Riverside Inn has been a food vendor near Scène LUS Internationale for five years, its top-selling items the Crab Cake Balls and the Sweet Potato Beignets. This year’s pandemic threw a wrench in owner Lori Hurst’s plans. “We had already started prepping our products. We all have bought our supplies. We’ve all come out of pocket,” she says. 

It was one of the restaurant’s volunteers who brought up the idea of celebrating Festival week anyway. “Before we even knew about Festival going virtual, we planned on paying homage to it,” says Hurst. Wednesday through Saturday from 5-8 p.m., Riverside will be selling the booth food for takeout or curbside at its 240 Tubing Road location in Broussard. 

“We’ll blare as much feel-good music we can outside. We’ll put flowers in our hair. We’ll wear our Festival shirts,” Hurst says. “We’ll have a toast at the end of each night — just like in our booth while splitting hard-earned tips. We’ll hope to leave tired from so many customers, and we’ll wake up, curse some from exhaustion, and get up and do it again.”

Sweet Potato Beignets are on Riverside Inn’s virtual FIL menu.

Even though the folks at Riverside may not be able to serve customers on the streets of Downtown, they don’t see it as a loss. Hurst admits that during Festival week, they don’t typically bring in large amounts of revenue anyway. “We actually aren’t running to the bank — we take a loss. Maybe it comes with being the new kid on the block, so to speak,” says Hurst. 

She says they participate mainly for exposure and just to be a part of it. “We’ve lived, loved and Festival-ed since the beginning. It’s our favorite. We are so lucky to have this in our hometown. The culture, the music, the art, the clothes, the jewelry, the crowd, the vendors, the friends, the neighbors, the volunteers, the staff — it all just clicks,” Hurst adds. “And to have this as a free festival — we are truly lucky.”

Downtown restaurants that would otherwise be open the week of Festival are stepping up to serve patrons a slice of springtime flavor. Pamplona Tapas Bar & Restaurant has been closed for the most part since the late March restrictions went into effect, but by popular demand is offering the much-loved Festival take-out items: paella, chicken charmoula, sangria and blackberry lemonade.

Central Pizza, a relative Festival newcomer with a popular window stop for pizza by the slice, is getting creative as well. Partner John Peterson says they’ll be offering the popular watermelon basil margaritas in single and half-gallon sizes and a specialty pizza called the Kiss and Tail topped with mozzarella, smoked sausage, Louisiana crawfish tails, jalapeño, roasted garlic, corn and a crawfish dip swirl. “Those specials will run through Saturday night, and we encourage virtual fest-goers to pick up from our to-go window,” he says. 

Obviously missing out on a week as busy as Festival can have a big impact on Downtown businesses. According to Petersen, revenues from the event are typically double what a normal week looks like. “A really strong week like that is a big deal, even for a busy restaurant. It gives you a little breathing room,” he says. The extra cash often funds projects, upgrades and a little cushion but doesn’t make or break the business. 

Andrew Payne from Pamplona agrees. “Festival [week] accounts for 50% of our revenue in April. We usually do major upgrades or improvements with the additional revenue we get. Those things will now just get put off till a later date.” 

Both restaurants seem to be faring well, despite the absence of the event, and are maintaining a positive, Festival-vibe attitude. “Festival is an important week for Downtown businesses in other ways. It energizes the staff, it fills the neighborhood with great energy, and it brings new potential guests to the Downtown area,” says Petersen. “It gives you a chance to introduce your restaurant to a new crowd.”

Both Central and Pamplona are Festival Leauxcal sponsors, meaning they support Festival International financially as underwriters. This annual music festival may be a tax revenue generator for city and state officials but to the community and the small businesses that contribute to this monster of an event, it’s a way of life. That said, these local business owners are sad to see the live event canceled this year but aren’t sweating the losses. “Until next year Dear Festival,” says Riverside’s Hurst, “….until next year.”

Check out all the virtual Festival food vendors here