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Slow Food Nation 2008

31 August, 2008 (06:13) | food | By: Shannon Clark

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(image cc-licensed by aaron_anderer on Flickr)

This weekend the many events of Slow Food Nation have been occurring around San Francisco. On Friday I made it to the Marketplace and Victory Garden in front of the San Francisco City Hall however I arrived late so many of the vendors were closed and sold out, I still managed to pick up some amazing artisinal jams directly from the makers of the jam, some phenonmenal local heritage varities of fruits, and a very tasty late lunch.

This evening I went to Fort Mason in the what I thought might be vain hope of finding a way to get a ticket to the completely sold out Slow Food Taste Pavilion for the 5pm evening tasting. I arrived at a bit after 4:30, waited around the lines and just as I was getting ready to leave, the line having all entered and only a handful of late arrivals still wandering in, I was talking with the volunteers at the gate when a very nice woman who had just arrived spoke up and said “hey, I have an extra ticket, here have it…”

Turns out that she works in the industry (restaurant manager for Boulette’s Larder at the Ferry Building here in San Francisco, a shop I frequent and love) and had both been given two free passes and had been unable to find a friend to take her extra free pass, so in the interest of good karma she passed it along to me for free.

So I was in and stayed until the very end. Before I get into my feedback and suggestions for next year’s Slow Food Nation (especially for the next year’s Taste Pavilions) a few basics.

  1. Everyone had a great time, the drinks (at least alcoholic) were flowing, the foods were great and all of the producers who were there and serving up their creations were thrilled to be there and seemed to be enjoying sharing them with everyone.
  2. Other locals and I were reminded just how truly lucky we are to live here in the Bay Area, quite a few of the great producers were local, most were shops and products I buy on a regular basis, stuff I can at times almost take for granted (forgetting just how amazing the quality can be).
  3. There were some surprising finds even in the very last minutes. Dishes I would have gladly purchased to take home. Happily one from a restaurant a relative of my grandfather’s third wife manages (okay the complexities of modern life, multiple marriages and long life).

But.

And there are a few buts, I have a lot of feedback and suggestions, things which did not work well or which I hope they improve on for the future. And broadly speaking many of these reflect the mixed branding which Slow Food as a movement has, especially here in the US. You might have thought I had forgotten this a blog about branding (well branding and the occasional long post about food such as this one).

What do I mean by “mixed branding”? Well the main objection to Slow Food is that as a movement it is, especially here in the US, very much about and for the elites (as the article in that link notes as the common perception) – a movement for people who can really afford to spend anything they want to spend on food so the only people (so the critics claim) who can support the goals (as sometimes misunderstood) of Slow Food. As a movement Slow Food has both in Europe and in the US had problems explaining itself to others (and heck to members) – is it a political movement? A reaction to “fast food”? A movement focused on local production? On the support of “heritage” brands? A movement to support producers or about how people cook at home or how and where they dine out or all of the above?

  1. The pavilions reflect a mostly Western, European food culture.At this year’s Taste Pavilions there were: Beer, Bread, Charcuterie, Cheese, Chocolate, Coffee, Fish, Honey & Preserves, Ice Cream, Native Foods, Olive Oil, Pickles & Chutney, Spirits, Tea and Wine. The Bread pavilion had pizza on one side and Indian naan on the other but that is about the only non-Western food which was served. The tea pavilion had a wide range of tea’s from across the world. But that’s about it for food that wasn’t based on a European cuisine. Certainly little that celebrates the strong Chinese, Japanese or Hispanic cultures of the Bay Area.
  2. The “slow dough” cards caused nothing but confusion.

    When you presented your ticket this year you received a “Slow Dough” card with 20 boxes on it, each tasting or beverage you took had, in theory, a cost of 1 to 3 boxes. If you ran out you could purchase more Slow Dough at a rate of 5 SD for $10. Beverages were a great “deal” with Wines being just one box for a 1 oz pour (not sure what a beer was but I think just a few). But just what each food would cost you was difficult to understand, there was not a single chart which showed the costs at each pavilion, rather each pavilion (again in theory) had signage showing what the costs were – though in practice most did not or if they did I couldn’t find the signs. In fact the Coffee Pavilion rejected the entire idea and refused to punch anyone’s cards, the Pickles and Chutneys pavilion flat out told me that instead of charge one box per tasting plate as in theory they were supposed to they would mark one box then let me take a tasting from each provider.

    My suggestion for next year do away entirely with the Slow Dough concept for all of the food, teas, coffees, and non-alcoholic beverages (which this year was only water but I’d strongly encourage the addition of serious slow providers of non-alcoholic drinks). Replace it with some form of counting and charging for extras for only the alcoholic drinks (Beers, Wines, Spirits) perhaps also for the speciality non-alcoholic drinks such as Root Beers and Ginger Beers that might be served at the same Beer pavilion. Give everyone enough for a few beers or a couple of wine flights or a cocktail, then charge the drinkers for more.

    Mostly the Slow Dough caused friction between the attendees and the producers of these amazing foods. Lines are understandable (see my next points about queues) and should be able to restrain people from taking more than their fair share, but the cards turned what I had hoped would be an evening of pure celebration of craft into a calculation game – if I get X will I also be able to still try Y…

  3. Bring in some real experts on queues and design a more consistent experience across the pavilions. The longest line, by far, was for the Cheese Pavilion. The shortest line was the Beer Pavilion. And yes, people noted that this was probably the only event they had ever been too where that was the case. But every pavilion used a different flow of the queues, some such as the Cheese had a single, continuous queue wrapped around the pavilion (and indeed outside of the building) in a spiral. Others had two lines entering the pavilion in different directions (and serving different foods in the case of the Charcuterie, the same food but from two stands in the case of the Fish pavilion). In short every Pavilion flowed considerably differently and there was nearly no signage about any of the queues, so as I was trying to wait in one of the two bread queues (I gave up, I think it was the line for the pizzas) someone came up and asked if this was the line to get into the building. Again not having anywhere a single document (or any posted maps and signs) which showed what foods were available for what cost and in how many different lines at each pavilion meant you got into a line not quite knowing what was going to happen next.

    The wine pavilion had a process where you were supposed to get a glass as you entered, then pick up a many page booklet listing the nearly 400+ bottles available, each with a number, you then found a section by number and waited your turn at the bar (in queues that were amorphous at best) and once there tried to decide on the basis of minimal information what you wanted to drink, or you could try one of the flights which were in four other areas but which I couldn’t quite figure out how to try.

    The confusions started at the very beginning of the event, the line stretched from the venue to nearly the entrance of Fort Mason but there was nearly zero signage about Slow Food Nation anywhere near the Fort Mason entrance, and what looked like a gate/checkpoint was not actually where your tickets were checked which was, in fact, further into the venue.

    And there was an entire section I never did find where sparkling water and Salsa Dancing was, I think, taking place. Not to mention I couldn’t easily see where the bathrooms were. Many, but not all, of the Pavilions had exhibits but due to the layouts of where the food tasting tables were, here I’m in particular thinking of the Fish Pavilion, I’m probably not alone in missing the exhibits nearly entirely. In the case of the Chocolate Pavilion I nearly missed the entire Pavilion because walking past I almost thought it was just a set of walls, didn’t see that inside there were some presentations, which when I entered I then also realized there was a large line entering from another entrance so I couldn’t, in fact, try the tasting as I entered the wrong way. All too confusing.

  4. Non-drinkers were seriously underserved.

    If you are a drinker and love craft beers, wines and spirits the Taste Pavilions were an amazing opportunity and serious bargain. There were 400+ different wines, dozens of different beers, and a lot of different mixed drinks (don’t know much about the later as I don’t drink spirits).

    But if like me you are either a light drinker or if you are a non-drinker your options were water, tastings of teas or coffee (which were serious tastings not beverages you could easily take with you and sip) or I think some sparkling water but as I noted I couldn’t actually find that section. There were no juices, no producers of craft sodas, ginger beers, organic bottle grape juices, iced teas or the like. I drank a lot of water, but I really found myself thirsty and wanting something to complement the foods, both savory and sweet I was eating but not being a heavy drinker I had no options.

  5. Vegetarians and non-pork eaters had very few options

    The bread pavilion which I never did manage to sample did have some vegetarian options as did, I think, the Native Foods pavilion (at least one dish I think) but the selection was fairly light elsewhere. The Charcuterie was not entirely surprisingly almost entirely pork products (a handful of beef jerkies as well – but which were as far as I could tell only available as part of a flight so if you didn’t eat pork you were out of luck). Anyone with other food allergies or other issues would have been faced with a lot complications in trying to decide pavilions to try because of the lack of signage and information – in part because what was being served did vary over the course of the evening – so a simple bread at one time might be replaced by a nut bread minutes later.

    Yes I know the theory of the Taste Pavilions was to highlight producers but I was frankly shocked that there was not a Fruit or a Vegetable pavilion. All evening I was craving a perfectly ripe peach and I, for one, would classify many of the local farmers squarely as slow food producers (Frog Hollow Farms which is phenomenal orchard which is carefully set up to have different varieties of stone fruits ripen every couple of weeks for the entire growing season from spring into the fall).

    There are also plenty of amazing vegetarian slow food producers who could have been highlighted. Here in the Bay Area there are some amazing local Tofu producers, local Yogurt companies, Udon noodle shops which use techniques passed down for 7+ generations and much more.

  6. Locals were not given the option to only try non-local producers

    I love the many amazing places I can buy food here in San Francisco and I was thrilled to see familiar companies and in many cases familiar faces at the Slow Food Nation Taste Pavilions, I said hello to the barista who pulled my machiato and whom I knew from when Drew worked at Ritual Roasters.

    But I attended Slow Food Nation in part to celebrate a nation of producers so I wanted to “spend” my calories and time sampling items I don’t get on a weekly basis here in San Francisco, I wanted to try things which were new to me, not just taste things I already love and buy for my dinner parties. Yet the way the Pavilions were set up I was unable to avoid getting many items I’m quite familiar with in my trying to sample new things. In particular in the Cheese Pavilion they were only serving three types of cheeses at a time as part of the flight, when got there this included a cheese I had, in fact, just bought for a recent dinner party and which is served on restaurant menus throughout the Bay Area. It is a great cheese, but I really wish I could have sampled something else new instead (and no getting two tastes of another cheese isn’t the same as getting a chance to savor a third new one)

    Sure, as I noted, I was happy to reminded just how luck I am to be living in San Francisco, but I would have really liked to see more representation from outside of San Francisco, to have seen a more truly national character to what was served. I would have also liked to have seen more emphasis on American slow foods – not just American businesses making craft examples of European foods (salumi, olive oils, etc). Where were the regional (US) foods? The maple syrups, the smoked Northwestern Salmon, etc.

I will be back for Slow Food Nation 2009 and I hope I can help in any way I can with the future events. I applaud them as well for trying a lot of different things – beyond the Marketplace and Taste Pavilions there are also many series of talks, workshops, a pretty serious Rock two day festival, conferences, films, dinners, walks and field trips being held all week. But for me, at least, the overall impression from the website, marketing efforts, and ticketing process is one of too many ideas, too much without an overall cohesion. Ticketing in particular was confusing and unclear – “discounted tickets at local Whole Foods” for example without ever noting what, in fact, that discount would have been!

Since I was given my ticket to the Taste Pavilion on my way out I spent some of what I had planned on spending for the evening on buying a year’s membership in Slow Food.

But then I went and spent the rest on some takeout from one of my favorite Thai restaurants in San Francisco which happens to be just a few blocks away from Fort Mason. I was hungry. And Sunday I will probably go to a Thai Food and Culture Festival which is also being held this weekend here in San Francisco, at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. For an admision price of $5 I’ll get a chance to see some demonstrations of Thai Culture and if the reports on Chowhounds are any evidence eat some serious Thai food prepared on the spot by skilled artisans. Food that I would claim is definitely “Slow Food” but which was not, alas, represented well at the Taste Pavilions this year.