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Feast for the fest

ACL organizers plan fine food to go with the banquet of music

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Originally published on September 24, 2008.

Beck, Foo Fighters, Patty Griffin. El Chilito, Salt Lick, Aquarelle.

At the Austin City Limits Music Festival this weekend, the stars of Austin's food scene will mix it up with the music stars - and not just backstage. Expanding on a goal set from the start of the event six years ago, the Zilker Park food court goes far beyond the usual fare for music fans. And this year they'll see some new high-end local restaurants dishing out food from the booths.

"Typical festival or carnival food we try to stay away from," says Charlie Jones, one of the C3 Presents promoters who run the ACL Fest. "No turkey legs."

Five years ago, he asked Hudson's on the Bend owner/chef Jeffrey Blank to act as food court consultant to boost the quality of offerings and attract other serious chefs to the food court. "I trust his judgment as much as I trust anybody's in this town," Jones says.

Jones and Blank wanted a festival with food as memorable as the music, similar to what the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival does every April.

A C3 panel reviews vendor applicants and selects the top 30 or so not only to feed the 65,000 hot, hungry music lovers expected each day, but also to represent the best of Austin food during the three-day festival, which starts Friday. "We're pretty picky, even to the point where we might take several of the slots and go after specific restaurants that carry specific items," Jones says.

Heavy hitters from years past include Stubb's Bar-B-Q and Hudson's, but Jones is particularly excited about some of the new vendors this year.

Vespaio is one of the restaurants they pursued. Jones says that he's been trying to get Vespaio at the festival for a while now. "It's one of the hardest places in town to get into," Jones says. "We're going to give thousands of people the chance to try it."

The quality of the food is one hurdle for all vendors. Serving thousands of people in a hurry out of a small, cramped booth outdoors is arguably harder.

"The first year, there were long lines and people ran out of food," Blank says. Both the fans and the promoters want short, fast-moving lines. People are happier when they get their food, and vendors turn a higher profit the more people they serve.

Blank knows that for many festivalgoers, this is the only time they'll be eating food from Hudson's, an expensive Lake Travis restaurant that is one of the area's top fine-dining restaurants. His staff's festival T-shirts say it all: "The only time you can eat at Hudson's for $7."

In addition to Vespaio, Aquarelle and Restaurant Jezebel are two other restaurants that will offer downscale versions of their upscale cuisine for the first time this year.

Aquarelle co-owner and chef Terry Wilson wanted to stick with the French theme of her restaurant but make it more like the street food found in Europe. The biggest obstacle for an intimate restaurant that seats 60 is figuring how to prepare to serve 15,000 units over three days, she says. "It's a different animal for sure," Wilson says. "It's hard to maintain the quality and integrity of the food, but at the same time, we have to put it out fast."

She plans to offer steak and caprese sandwiches and a shrimp roll.

"It's such a big event for the city we just wanted to be a part of it," she says, even though it means closing the downtown restaurant for four days so her small staff can work the festival.

For El Chilito owner Carlos Rivero, the prospect of serving so many people is intimidating. Rivero, who says C3 asked him to be a part of this year's festival, says the biggest catering event the restaurant has done is a wedding with 800 guests, which is the number of people they will serve in just a few hours at the festival.

His staff is working around the clock to ease any anxieties about running out of food. Initially, Rivero wanted to make enough to serve 6,000 tacos a day, but El Chilito is now ready to serve 10,000 to 12,000 tacos a day. Kitchen staff started preparing taco fillings in 50-pound batches in August, freezing gallon bags of carne guisada, tinga de pollo and bean and cheese in freezers in the restaurant's warehouse next to the Manor Road eatery.

"We're cooking all the time while cooking day-to-day" for regular customers, Rivero says. El Chilito eventually started using kitchens at sister restaurants El Chile and Stortini to increase production.

"It's hard work," Rivero says of maintaining the same quality standards at the food court as the restaurant. "We want the visibility for our brand, but we want it to represent the restaurant."

At a new vendor meeting at the beginning of September, Rivero, Wilson and a dozen or so other restaurant staff stood under the shade of a tree near the Zilker Park volleyball courts to get advice from representatives of Sysco, the festival's food purveyor, food court manager Jeff Click and Blank on what they are getting into.

Click, who is in charge of the food court for the first time this year, outlines details for the vendors that the average concertgoer wouldn't think of: what material makes the best flooring (vendors have to provide flooring for their booths), how to keep the grease disposal clean, what to do with dirty water (they can't just dump it on the park grounds), where hand-washing sinks are set up, how much electricity they are allowed to use, how they will dispose of all that trash and all those boxes, and - with the C3 push to be green - how to make sure everything they sell comes in a recyclable container.

Employees with Sysco tell vendors how to order more food on site, what health inspectors are particularly sensitive about and how their security staff will make sure nothing happens to the vendors' booths or food in the few hours between the last shift of one day and the first shift of the next day.

Amid the deluge of details, rules and regulations, it is Blank's sage knowledge of navigating the festival frenzy that perks up the vendors.

"No special orders," he tells them. "You want your line to move fast. Five bucks, five bucks, five bucks, product, product, product. Get people who are not shy up front. The faster you turn around product, the faster you make money."

Ah, money. What to do with all that cash? Money goes in a bucket below the counter and change is made out of a belt pouch , Blank recommends. "It's weird to walk out with 20 to 30 thousand dollars in ones," he says.

Bring extra chairs and fans for employees to take breaks. Watch for heat exhaustion.

"Every year, it's a little different," Blank says. "You have to be inventive."

Blank's role as a mentor and culinary consultant is invaluable to the court, Click says later. In addition to helping select the restaurants, he reviews menus and helps vendors decide which items will sell better than others. "He's the voice of experience," Click says. "(Vendors) have more of a relationship with him than they do me."

Three long days are sure to wear on vendors and their employees, but the payoff can be huge. Most employees will make about $100 a day, which is likely to be equaled by the tips they split at the end of each day.

Many vendors hire employees who don't usually work in the restaurant. Blank says it's a good way to avoid burnout and to keep the restaurants staffed during what is already a high-traffic weekend.

A bonus of working the festival? Employees are encouraged to take breaks to either cool off or check out a band or two.

But between 4 and 7 p.m., which at previous festivals has been the busiest time at the food court, the mad rush for filling stomachs begins and everyone works.

"You try to get more lines with fewer people in each line," Click says. "(Vendors and C3) want you out enjoying music," not waiting in lines. Each vendor has four to eight points to service to help speed things along.

Once the big acts start on the main stages, business backs off and vendors can start ordering supplies for the next day.

Forecasting the volume of food each vendor will serve is the biggest challenge, Blank says. "That's the key," he says. "You don't want a bunch of food left over. You want to run out of food at 8:30 p.m. just as the last headliners are taking stage."

What bands are on the lineup also influences how Blank decides what to serve and how much to buy.

"We'll tweak the volume because of the bands," Blank says. For instance, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant are playing this year, which to Blank means that more middle-age boomers with money will be there, likely clamoring for his signature chicken cones. (Read more about this famous ACL Fest treat in Thursday's XL.)

Figuring out the festival is trial by fire at best, Click says. "Some of the old ones (vendors), they tell stories of getting run over the first year," he says. "Every year you learn something and figure it out."

Everyone agrees that even though vendors are competing for the same concertgoer cash, they can't make it through the blizzard of fans without the help of others.

It comes back to karma, too, Click says. If you help out the guy next to you, he'll be there for you when you run out of something or need a hand.

"If you are rude to people and don't work with them, they will be the same with you," he says, "but there's a good atmosphere of teamwork and camaraderie."

Click says as long as vendors present good food at a good price, everyone will come out ahead.

"They are all taking the same risk and working for the same reward."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

At the ACL Fest food court:

* Amy's Ice Creams

* Aquarelle Restaurant and Wine Bar (steak and frites sandwich, caprese sandwich)

* Austin's Best Burger

* Austin's Pizza

* Ben & Jerry's

* Best Lemonade

* Boomerang's Pies (Guinness steak-and-potato pie, spinach and mushroom pie)

* Children of the Kettle Corn

* Doc Green's Gourmet Salads & Grill

Restaurant Jezebel (falafel pita sandwich, cold pasta, curried potato, cabbage and pea burrito)

* El Chilito (braised beef, spicy chicken and bean tacos)

* Flipnotics (iced coffee and smoothies)

* The Original Hoffbrau Steaks

* Hudson's on the Bend (chicken cone, avocado cone, fish cone)

* Maine Root (organic beverages)

* Nice Conez (snow cones)

* P. Terry's (burgers)

* Pureheart (lamb and beef gyro, ham and brie panini)

* Roy's (Asian barbecue wings, pulled Kahlua pork nachos)

* Saba Blue Water Cafe (fish tacos, pulled pork tacos)

* Salt Lick

* Amazon Berry Smoothies

* Snowie (shaved ice)

* Solar Natural Foods (wraps)

* Stubb's Bar B-Que

* Sweet Leaf Tea

* The Best Wurst

* Thistle Café (wraps, turkey melt)

* Vespaio/Enoteca (mozzarella, tomato and pesto sandwich, calamari sandwich, meatball hoagie)

* Wahoo's Fish Tacos