Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Interview with Feast Portland Co-founder, Carrie Welch

courtesy of Feast PDX

I love Portland not just because of the food, but because I've been part Oregonian all my life and went to college in Portland. This year I'm very excited to attend Feast Portland. Most major cities have their big, annual food and beverage event and for Portland it is Feast, which happens in September. 

Feast takes place September 15th – 18th, 2016. A few remaining tickets can be found here.

This year marks the 5th year of Feast, just one more than our own Farm to Fork Festival. While we have very different cities and therefore very different festivals, I was curious to find out more about Feast since it has gained more national attention than our Farm to Fork Festival. I sent a few questions off to one of the founders, Carrie Welch, and was so thrilled how much time she took to thoroughly answer my questions. I figured I'd just cut and paste the whole interview.

What was the original inspiration for Feast? Has it accomplished what you originally intended or did it grow to something different?
The original inspiration was a conversation in a coffee shop in Downtown Portland in 2011. I'd just moved to Portland from New York City with my wife Jannie. We knew no one, had no family here. We'd come on vacation a couple of years prior and fell in love with the city. Just the right size, nice people, incredible food and drink.
A few friends mentioned Mike Thelin (now my co-founder) and suggested we should meet. The food world is so small and we knew many of the same people. We met for coffee and hit it off right away. I asked Mike when the festival was. He said which one? I said the BIG one, the defining one that everyone goes to. He said - We should talk.
Mike had many of the events we have at Feast Portland sketched out in his mind, and had some sponsors and partners already interested. Chefs, wineries, breweries, the whole city really, was ready for Feast. We were the ones who said "Let's do it!."
Feast is everything we intended it to be and so much more. We knew right out of the gate in year one that we had surpasses our own expectations and those of most who attended and participated. It was the most terrifying experience of my life - walking into the events Mike and I had envisioned for the first time. And so exhilarating when it was a success!
Feast has grown into something different and there was one thing I could not have anticipated. There is a feeling every year now, it starts about a week or two before the event, mostly on social media, but you overhear conversations around town too, where everyone in Portland starts getting excited for the festival. Truly excited. I think it speaks to the exceptional community we have in this city where everyone supports each other and all boats really do rise. I have never experienced a collective excitement the way we do for Feast and it makes me proud of what we've all built together, because we could never have done this without everyone in Portland, the entire state of Oregon and all of the chef and guests who come in from out of town every year.

I see you have many years with the Food Network. Is that the primary avenue for reaching out to celebrity chefs? Your contacts from then? 
You would think! The answer is not really. Such irony, I know! Food Network has played an important role in Feast as I had an amazing 10 year career there where I was trained to do pretty much anything. I had great mentors who let me try new things like food festivals, philanthropic projects and so much more. I learned what hard work really is from working with people like Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray. I am beyond grateful for my time there, but Feast is a different sort of food festival. The chefs we carefully research and approach are more of the up and comers. They might have been on TV or not - we try to pick those we're excited about and we think our audience will want to come see. We always try to top ourselves and think differently about what a food and drink festival can be and should be, every year. 

courtesy of Feast PDX

How big was the first year?  Was Bon Appetit a sponsor from the start? How big a role do they have? 
For a festival's first year, ours was huge! Of course it's going to feel that way to us, but I don't think any festival has taken over Portland the way ours did that year and continues to every year. Bon Appetit has been with us from Day One and they remain a key partner in Feast. Their editorial team has supported us and how we're approaching this event from the get go and they are integral in the programming of many of our events. We look at chefs and invite them together in some cases. They are very hands on and we appreciate their perspective because it's their job to know what's coming up in the world of food and beverage, so they are important partners in terms of staying that one step ahead.

We often get it here, so I wonder your response to the question of elitism of the event. I see everything is sold out, so I can't review the pricing anymore, but I know your ticket prices are high. I, of course, understand it's for charity and there are costs involved, but is there any thought to lower price points, like in the $20 range?
We're actually not totally sold out yet! We try to make Feast as approachable as humanly possible, while also providing high quality events where there is something for everyone. I know, not everyone can afford at $150 dinner ticket, that's definitely understandable. If you can, and going to a once in a lifetime chef collaboration is something you want to do, we have that option for you. But if not, we have Drink Tank panels that are $45 if that's more your speed.

One of our events that is still available is the Friday 9/16 Grand Tasting. It's $60 for four hours (1-5pm) of sampling the best artisans, wineries, breweries and more in Pioneer Courthouse Square. A few of our Drink Tank panels ($45) are also still available. Because our nighttime events are about having fun and celebrating food and drink in large scale, outdoor venues, we also provide these intimate panels for those who might want to have a more in-depth, focused discussion around a particular topic. I'm excited about the Wine vs. Beer panel (which still has tickets available) as Marissa Ross and Christian DeBenedetti are two of the most fun, knowledgeable wine and beer experts in the country right now.

What aspects of the festival seem to be more popular or sell out first?  Tastings or more intimate events, like the dinners? Do celebrity chefs from other cities help those events be faster sellers?
Our Dinner Series events are usually the first to sell out. This year our Smoked! event sold out the day we put tickets on sale, which was exciting. We added a series of Fun-Size events - not too big, not too small - and almost all of those sold out in the first week. I think the traveling chefs do provide incentive as most people want to attend the dinners or events that have a chef they may not see in Portland again soon, or that seem like a killer pairing. Our Night Market and Brunch Village events have been fast sellers too and I think that's a combination of the chefs and the theme. 

Do you feel the hands-on classes are worth the effort and will continue on?  SF Chefs/Eat Drink SF has drastically cut back on seminars over the years.
We love the Hands On Classes and they will continue at Feast. They sell out very quickly as they're a unique, intimate option our attendees really enjoy. We always get a lot of positive feedback on our classes, and they're supported by people from in town and from out of town. This year we've moved to more contextual locations which I think is an added benefit for festival-goers as you get to see Smith Tea's factory, the Multnomah Whisky Library and other cool spots while you're learning something new.

Much thanks to Carrie!
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