Minnesota Cheese Festival organizer talks about lessons learned

What's a cheese festival without a little controversy?  
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.

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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