The culinary world is just a few days away from its first large-scale food event taking place in a time of increased vaccine availability, when the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF) returns for its 20th year from Thursday, May 20 through Sunday, May 23.
This year’s version of the festival — which traditionally takes place in late February, but was delayed until May this year due to COVID-19 concerns — will look very different than in years past, incorporating a slew of safety precautions meant to keep guests and participating chefs safe like a contactless ticketing system, temperature checks, capacity restrictions, cleaning, sanitization, limiting physical contact, implementing strict masking requirements, and creating one-way traffic flow inside the (all outdoor) events, and more.
“If you’re not eating, or you’re not seated at a table, you’re wearing a mask,” said Lee Brian Schrager, festival founder and director. “And the days of going across the tent and flip-flopping from that side and going in all directions are done.”
Marquee events like Best of the Best, which usually brings in crowds of over 3,000 into a large indoor ballroom will now take place outside over two nights with 500 guests at each session. Burger Bash, another longtime favorite of the festival that typically turns out a crowd of over 4,000 people, will host two sessions from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. with time reserved in-between for cleaning the tent and restocking the tent with personal protective equipment (PPE). Both sessions will only host 1,000 people.
“There’ll be a thousand people in the same sized tent, where you have the same number of chefs that we’ve always had, so it’s really going to be the ultimate experience for any consumer coming,” Schrager says.
The seated dinners will also look different this year. Instead of having 80 to 100 people per dinner, each event will only host 50 to 60 people per dinner. In lieu of the large communal tables of years past, guests will buy a table of two, four, or six, to ensure that nobody is sitting with somebody they don’t know.
Coordinating the participating chefs for the 70 plus events based on their individual comfort levels this year has also been has also been a unique challenge for the festival that was once nicknamed “spring break for chefs.”
“I will tell you, they were either 100 percent in immediately or needed to think about it or just weren’t comfortable committing,” Schrager says. “We didn’t want to push anyone. I’m known for getting an answer out of people, but I didn’t want anyone to come here and not feel comfortable.”
Chefs participating in the events will be provided with protective gear in order to limit their exposure to the consumers who may or may not be vaccinated. Originally the festival wanted to ask every guest to either show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days in order in order to enter the event. However, last month, Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis banned any business in the state from requiring people to show proof of vaccination. Adding yet another hurdle for the team that is throwing a large scale event in a state that is still reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases daily.
“We legally can’t ask you, but we can ask you to attest to it,” added Schrager. “Meaning it’s like the honor society; you’ll sign a document or you’ll download an app that will make you attest to a negative test and, God willing, everyone will be honest about it. But everyone won’t, we know that.”
One challenge that the festival isn’t facing? Staffing issues that are currently hampering the restaurant industry aren’t much of an issue for SOBEWFF — thanks to the students and volunteers, adding that the festival is almost 100 percent staffed.
“We’re also using a lot more students because they are doing double shifts,” adds Schrager. “The students have been great at FIU (Florida International University) and Southern Glazer’s employees are volunteering, so everyone’s chipping in to make sure we can pull it off.”
With ticket sales cut in half this year, the festival is set to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to put on the event. While Schrager is the first one to admit that the festival isn’t going to have a great year financially, he also is looking at success from a different lens in 2021.
“A good year to me is that we’re back, we’re doing it safely, and people have a good experience. We are not judging success this year by ticket sales. We couldn’t.”