Mac and Cheese Fest a hot mess

Good thing I fuelled up before entering the way oversold festival

Demand was hot for the Toronto Mac & Cheese Fest, which made its debut in Liberty Village this past weekend. But from the moment the fest kicked off on Friday evening, it became clear that there were a few fund-emmental flaws in the organizers’ plans.

Thanks to major overcrowding, lengthy and disorganized lines, limited food supplies and omnipresent litter, few of the estimated 46,000 attendees left with fond-ue memories of the event. Many took to social media to speak with a united voice: The organizers, while well-meaning, completely blue it.

I, too, roux the day I decided to attend the festival. On Friday night, I spent an hour and a half and $20 for the privilege of standing shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back with thousands of people and eating two tiny nibbles of food. And if cheesy punning is the sole remaining joy I can derive from that experience, then so brie it.

As the number and scope of food festivals in Toronto has grown, the demand has increased exponentially in step. That’s led to a few spectacular busts. The most infamous might still be February 2014’s grievously oversold Grilled Cheese Festival, which promised AYCE sandwiches and soups but sent many diners home with a fraction of a sandwich as thanks for four hours of waiting in line and a $40 admission.

I had hoped the Mac & Cheese Fest, held by local event planners Vaulted Studios as a fundraiser for FoodShare Toronto, would avoid the fate of its dairy-based forerunner. But I went to the Aroma across the street beforehand and ate half a sandwich, just in case.

Out front of the festival gates, twin lines snaked a block each way along East Liberty. After waiting for 15 or so minutes, a group of friends walked up to me, told me they had bought too many tickets, and offered to sell me a strand of 20 for the standard going rate of $20. I was pumped to save myself another 10 minutes in line but noticed several other attendees were also going down the line trying to unload their unused tickets. I should have taken this as a sign.

I rounded behind the beer garden to the food trucks and waded into a packed crowd – all ostensibly waiting for something, though it was impossible to tell where a line for one truck or stall ended and another began. 

Even in the wake of raging thunderstorms earlier in the afternoon, thousands of people had shown up to pack the East Liberty market area – 17,000 over the course of the evening and more than three times the number organizers expected, I later learned. At a given time, only about 10 per cent were holding any kind of food. (I shot them some envious cut-eye.)

Eventually, I shoved my way (soundtracked with a stream of excuse-me-pardon-mes, because this is Canada) to the line for H Bar, partially because I wanted to say hi to the co-owners and partially because their line was the only one with a discernible back end. About 40 minutes later, I collected my reward: a mac-and-cheese croquette fashioned into a slider and a single fried chicken wing topped with an admirable cheddar and Amsterdam Big Wheel nacho sauce (guys, seriously, start selling this stuff in squeeze bottles).

Stopped by #MACFEST15 and quickly left with an empty stomach. Ridic long lines, no space to move, zero organization @MacandCheesefst

— Sandra (@vorfr_de) June 6, 2015

After that, I debated asking the other festivalgoers to crowd-surf me out of there but fell into the 50-foot queue for Mata Petisco Bar’s truck anyway. Ten minutes of waiting later, groans arose: They had completely sold out, and everyone waiting for food shuffled off to go thicken up the other lines. 

Finally defeated, I headed to Let’s Be Frank on Spadina, where I ordered myself a dog smothered in cheesy macaroni and BBQ sauce. It showed up in about 12 minutes, and I inhaled it in about five.

The next afternoon, I swung back through the area and briefly considered stopping in to use up the $16 in tickets I had remaining. Then I saw the block-long line for tickets, which was unchanged from the day before, and the seamless pattern of cranky-looking faces inside the fences. For the first time in my life, I ran the hell away from macaroni and cheese.

Was completely ambitious thinking we could try all the vendors at tonight’s #MACFEST15 @ilibertyvillage #sowrong

— Huong Nguyen (@Huong_N) June 6, 2015

In addition to disappointing attendees, the festival also raised the ire of the locals. Liberty Village residents told CP24 that uneaten food, puddles of vomit, and piece after piece of trash were left in the festival zone overnight Saturday. The mess, Vaulted’s Philip Suos explained to the Star, was due to a labour shortage that ensued when volunteers, overwhelmed by the scope of the festival, abandoned their posts, and branded trucks handing out free samples outside the event only made the litter problem worse.

Suos and his team have been apologetic in the days following the event, admitting (no surprise here) that they were vastly unprepared for the volume of hungry diners. In fairness, the festival was brand-new, the first of its kind in Canada, and I doubt few event planners would ever dare expect this kind of runaway success for an event’s first outing.

But local media pounced on the announcement of the festival in the weeks leading up to the event (“Toronto gets a mac and cheese fest” is a story too easy to write, and a headline too universally appealing to resist). Meanwhile, with every “omg we need to go!!!” Facebook share from one friend to another, the “attending” numbers on the festival’s Facebook page, a simple if imperfect way for organizers to get a sense of public demand, steadily climbed to over 58,000. Even when you account for a certain obligatory percentage of flaky RSVPs, those numbers still would have vastly outstripped their attendance estimates.

One possible solution for keeping this festival from collapsing under its own extreme cheese-fuelled bloat would have been to roll out an advance ticketing system as soon as demand began to substantially surpass supply – perhaps with more tickets released as organizers gauged the trucks’ readiness to handle the crowds as the date drew nearer. An unpopular move? Perhaps, but limited attendance numbers would have allowed for an easier playing field upon which organizers could work out the kinks. 

Advance sales certainly aren’t a magic bullet for food festivals – Grilled Cheese Fest and Food Truck Festival Ontario are two notable examples of festivals that instituted such a system, fell prey to the temptation to oversell the event, and saw hundreds of cranky, line-weary diners go home hungry. But festival organizers can no longer afford to underestimate the demand in this town for food events, and being brutally realistic about how many mouths you can feed is the only way to avoid seriously cheesing people off. | @nataliamanzocco

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