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Monday, June 15, 2009

The Great American Food and Music Fest: The Good, The Bad, and The Hungry

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 3:00 PM

Marisol Segal
If you actually got food, there was reason to celebrate.
(View our full slideshow of the event)

We won't sugarcoat it: Saturday's Great American Food and Music Fest was riddled with major problems, from the almost immediate failure of a cashless wristband debit system for purchases to hours of impenetrable lines for food during much of the day. While it would be unfair to call it a universally bad experience, it was an event that roused a huge chorus of disgruntled voices, ranging from good-humored complaining to straight-up outrage.

As SFoodie entered the parking lot, we noticed streams of people leaving. We didn't think too much of it because it was a few hours into the day and we thought people might have had their fill of food.

Once we reached the gate, we learned that the opposite was true. Multiple lines for refunds had formed outside the box office. A group of women called out to us, warning us not to waste our time going in; they said they had waited more than an hour to get inside, that their wristbands didn't work, and that the lines for the vendors were already a few hours' long, with some of the key items (pastrami sandwiches from New York's Katz's Deli, cheesecake from Brooklyn's Junior's) already sold out.

At this point, we weren't ashamed to flaunt what few "special people" privileges we had with our media pass, but that basically got us as far as a grape, some Skittles, and a bottle of water in the press tent. We still had to wait in the lines like everyone else, which didn't look too appealing at all, especially since we'd skipped breakfast and craved instant gratification. Luckily, we ran into Chuck Siegel from Charles Chocolates, who was an angel to share his tray of Texas Southside Market BBQ. Four of us descended on a plate of hot sausage and brisket, and it probably tasted more amazing because we knew it had been so hard to get.

If we weren't back on the meat wagon these days, we would have pretty much been eating dessert all day -- great in theory, not so much in reality. From what we could tell, the day's vegetarian selections were as follows: Siegel's chocolates and epic s'mores, ice cream in a cup from Cincinatti's Graeter's (Oprah's favorite -- it was amazing, actually), a good ol' It's-It from San Francisco, Junior's cheesecake (for the early birds, though we heard it was half-frozen), peanut-butter-and-strawberry-jam sandwiches from Berkeley's June Taylor Jams, and rugelach or a tiny bagel from New York's Barney Greengrass (hold the sturgeon on the latter).

Lines did ease up in some places later in the day, but in many cases this was because a lot of items were sold out. For most of the afternoon, it took more than two hours to get a hot dog from L.A. legend Pink's, but by 6 p.m., the line was closer to 15 minutes in duration, to the delight of the SoCal expat in our group.

SFoodie has spent a lifetime attending events at Shoreline, raising up a giant foam fan hand at everything from Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair to rap, rock, and world music concerts. To the venue's absolute credit, we have never seen such a breakdown happen there. But the day did not change our view that the concept of the Great American Food and Music Fest is one worth honing, whether there or somewhere else.

Our armchair advice for organizer Ed Levine, the New Yorker behind the food blog Serious Eats? Look into a cashless system, but don't make it the only form of payment accepted by vendors. Consider staggering entry times for different ticket levels if the venue is to be oversold (a policy that was apparently communicated but not enforced). Offer more in the way of healthy food, with options for our sizable vegetarian community. If music is to remain a component of the festival, contemplate broadening the styles to create a lineup that will entice more people to leave the food area to watch the performances.

As of the publishing of this post, there are more than 200 comments, mostly attendees expressing the disappointments of their day, spread out between Levine's apology post, Serious Eats' festival preview, and editorials on SFGate and the Mercury News. Reading them is morbidly fascinating, as emotions go from level-headed to incendiary (one person called it the worst Bay Area event since Altamont -- yikes).    

From accounts left on Serious Eats, Live Nation has been handling the refunds smoothly (since this morning, at least); if you require one, call (888) 598-4299 for more info.

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Tamara Palmer


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