No Rest for the Fest

No Rest for the Fest

Hipster foodie culture and social media are challenging the grand old Scottsdale Culinary Festival, but the small Airpark-based group in charge is determined to keep it the premiere food event in Arizona.

By Jimmy Magahern

Every year, the Scottsdale Culinary Festival glides gracefully through the Valley’s perfectly ripened days of spring like one of the swans that favor the fountains at the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza—swimming along with pride and purpose, regal in its command of the current waters, no matter how murky or unsettled.

Or maybe it moves like another waterfowl. “I liken the event to a duck,” says Jerry McMahon, board president of the Scottsdale League for the Arts, hosts of the event that is celebrating its 37th anniversary this April. “Above the surface it’s moving very gracefully…very calm and placid. But underneath the water, its feet are paddling like crazy!”

That’s also a fitting description of how the tiny Scottsdale League for the Arts office, nestled in a nondescript industrial cul-de-sac in the shadow of the Scottsdale Airpark, operates at this time of year. On the surface, the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, a five-day foodie fiesta that consistently ranks as one of the top annual city events in all the travel guides, appears to be the product of a big, well-oiled machine with the influence and capital to corral the best chefs, tastemakers and culinary visionaries in town.

In actuality, the event is put on by a bare-bones staff of three office workers and a temp, managing an offsite crew of about 62 unpaid volunteers.

“I’ve been in the league 14 years now,” says McMahon, a retired business executive and one of the volunteer members. “And I’m amazed, year after year, at the amount of effort that goes on behind the scenes. We have a lot of young entrepreneurs who just give an inordinate amount of time to a volunteer nonprofit organization.”

Lately though, a few ripples in the water have been rocking the duck. Young Yelp commenters have not been entirely kind to the SCF, criticizing the festival’s signature weekend event, the Great Arizona Picnic, for high food and drink prices and for featuring chain restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings, Dos Gringos and Chipotle over local indies. Other food festivals, including some with more hipster cache, have been competing for the epicurean crowd around the Valley.

In addition, the league’s accountability and transparency rankings have been befouled by the leading charity watchdog group. Heck, even the SCF’s long-held stake as the “nation’s longest-running culinary arts festival” is now challenged in Wikipedia, which gives Taste of Cincinnati that honor. For the record, the first Scottsdale Culinary Festival (then called Festival of the Culinary Arts) was held in January 1979—four months ahead of Cincinnati’s first fest.

While the unwelcome jabs haven’t exactly ruffled the old bird’s feathers, its neck is clearly craned to observe the changes in the wind.

“We do take note of the comments that are made, and we do ask ourselves, ‘How do we do our best to overcome that?’” says McMahon. “It’s a question of understanding the dynamics of what’s going on in the community. And we try to stay up with what’s happening. But things are definitely changing.”

Spreading the wealth

“The biggest misconception people have about the festival is that we’re making money on this,” says league treasurer Dan Bowman, another uncompensated volunteer who runs his own architectural design firm in Scottsdale. “The one question we always hear is, ‘How much do you get paid?’ Most people don’t know that we’re a volunteer organization, and that all net proceeds go to local charities.”

Perhaps the skeptics are spending too much time on the Web. Watchdog group Charity Navigator gives the league a dismal 0 out of 4 stars in its rating and claims it has the highest overhead of any nonprofit in the country (98.5 percent of its proceeds in 2011). But general manager Lindsey Friend says that figure fails to take into account the unusual way the fundraising organization is structured.

“We’re not structured like, say, the Boys & Girls Club, where they’re taking donations and then putting that directly into their program,” she says. “We have our operating account where the money that we collect from the tickets we sell goes into actually producing the event. And then we have sponsors that underwrite a portion of it, which is where the net proceeds come from.”

Charity Navigator writes off the festival as “fundraising” and says it accounts for 82 percent of its funds usage. The event is actually the vehicle for raising money through the sponsorship program, which regularly draws in many of the city’s top media outlets, hotels and national food and drink producers eager to reach more than the 40,000 attendees the event averages. Participating restaurants kick in 50 percent of their take, too, putting the proceeds way above the festival’s cost.

All told, the SCF has contributed more than $4 million to local arts organizations in the past 14 years. In 2014,  the league donated $184,100 to 40 organizations.

Managing which organizations get a share of that is another colossal annual undertaking for the league. Friend says the group begins lining up benefactors for the upcoming festival as soon as they finish writing checks dispersing the take from the last one.

“We have a grant program that’s open for two months after the festival,” she says. “It opens in mid-June and finishes in August. We have a lot of new organizations that find out about us and then apply for grants. And we have a grants committee that goes through all the applications and see if it’s a right fit.”

A few of the same charities appear on the list every year. The SLA contributes regularly to Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona, a program that pairs abused, neglected and at-risk kids with professional artists who help them find their creative “release valves” and build self-esteem through artistic expression. The league also funds The Art of Healing, a program that teaches art to children hospitalized at Banner Health’s Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa.

But each year a few new ones are added and a few drop off. Proceeds collected from this year’s festival will be split between 40 organizations, helping to fund everything from music (Jazz in Arizona, Rosie’s House and MusicaNova) to theater (Arizona Theatre Company, Childsplay and Stray Cat Theatre) to visual arts (Phoenix Art Museum, Scottsdale Public Art and the Phoenix Institute for Contemporary Art).

“We’re not solely focused on just donating to one group,” explains Bowman. “There’s such a wide spectrum of what art is considered to be, from painting to ballet to the culinary arts,” he adds, pointing out the parallel between the food festival and the organizations that benefit from it. “We’ve done very well over the years. So we’re able to spread that out a bit.”

Expanding the brand

“A decade ago, it was just us,” says McMahon, describing the national obsession with artisan cooking and quirky eating options that have sprung up over the last few years. “Now there are all these foodie events that go on these days. We do our best to keep ourselves ‘fresh’ among all the other events that are available—Devoured, the food truck events, the taco events. They’ve sprung up everywhere in the past few years.”

The league’s big event, the Great Arizona Picnic, has lately been taking some lumps from reviewers on Yelp (ironically a sponsor this year), who complain about the chain restaurants and “run-of-the-mill downtown Scottsdale bars” represented over more deserving independent local eateries. Bowman says they always feature a good share of small neighborhood favorites, but adds that the festival needs some bigger players too, just to feed the big crowds the weekend picnic event draws.

“We can kind of pick and choose which restaurants we feature, and we try to work with the same patrons that have been partners with us for years,” he says. “But when we have 40 or 50 restaurants out there, not every one of them can be local mom and pop shops, because they can’t all support this type of event. A lot of those smaller places that everybody loves as great community spots can’t support the crowd that we bring out for them, so sometimes we need to have some of those chains.”

The demographics at the Great Arizona Picnic have been changing, too. Whereas roughly half of the attendees used to be over 40 and above the $150,000 income range, today’s crowd—reflecting the general demographics around Old Town Scottsdale on the weekends—is younger and, unfortunately, drawn more to the drinking stations. This doesn’t fit with the family-friendly theme the event aims to project, but Bowman says they work closely with the Scottsdale police and the Arizona Department of Liquor License & Control to keep an eye on underage drinking and general over-indulgers.

“There is a lot more drinking,” he admits, “but we’ve gotten way better on monitoring everything. We want to make sure our brand, our reputation, is still intact at the end of the event.”

Friend also points out that the festival comprises much more today than just the weekend picnic. “Our signature event is the Great Arizona Picnic, that’s the event most people associate with the Scottsdale Culinary Festival,” she says. “But we do have events all through the week leading up to that weekend, held at different places all around Scottsdale and even Phoenix.”

The week kicks off Tuesday night with a craft cocktail party at the trendy Degree 270 nightclub atop the Talking Stick Resort, followed by the Chocolate & Wine Experience at the Musical Instrument Museum in north Phoenix (a 2015 grant recipient) on Wednesday. On Thursday there’s the return of the popular Burger Battle cook-off at the Hotel Valley Ho and the Bubbles & Bliss champagne soiree at the W Scottsdale, and on Friday it’s the Eat Drink & Be Pretty fashion show at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

“You can really customize your experience,” says Bowman. “We have everything from the picnic for a $10 entrance fee to a $225 dinner. Some people we’ll see every night of the week. They have such a great time at one event, they want to see if they can have an even better time at the next one.”

Beyond the fest

The league is also expanding its events well beyond festival week. “Two years ago, we took an event that we used to do at the center, Cooks & Corks, and decided to do it in the fall at the Four Seasons,” McMahon notes. “Four years ago, we decided to move the James Beard dinner, which is a signature event that had been held during festival week, to March. And we do that at the Westin Kierland. This year, we’re doing our Hall of Fame event in a new venue in downtown Scottsdale, and we moved that to the Monday before festival week.”

The group also hosts monthly events with restaurants throughout the Airpark called Third Thursday Socials, where the restaurants donate the food and a $5 entrance fee in return for the league bringing in a big group of customers.

“We’ll bring 100 to 125 people into their place that may never have known about it before,” Bowman says. “And our patrons are the people they want. They’re foodies. They want to try new food, try new cocktails.

“It’s all about expanding our footprint to more places and more times of the year,” he adds. “Reminding people who we are, what we do and what we give back to the community.”

That includes reminding the volunteers of what they’re contributing by being involved with the league.

“One of the things Lindsey and I have started doing is going to the organizations we donate to in person,” says McMahon. “For years, we’d divvy up the grant money and mail a check, and we’d get written thank-you notes back. Well, this year, we took about 20 checks and went out there to deliver them personally, and it was just an overwhelming experience. We decided next year, every board member gets four to five checks and goes out personally to these organizations to show our appreciation.”

For Friend, the personal contact brings to life the impact the league has on the outcomes of the organizations it helps—something that can’t be measured in a simple star ranking on Charity Navigator.

“We donate to this wonderful program that teaches art to children who are in long-term stays at the hospital,” she says. “And it’s such a great therapeutic outlet for a lot of these kids, where they can go and escape and kind of work through a lot of the things that are going on in their lives. For me, just seeing the effect that has really pulls on my heartstrings.”

McMahon mentions another example. “We had a woman from the Scottsdale Unified School District visit us a while back and she told us that over the five years that we had been helping fund their arts program, we had an impact on 160,000 kids. When you hear something like that, it just boggles the mind. That’s the reason we do this.”