Sometimes being a consultant and researcher needs to be combined with more hands-on experience in actually making something or serving customers to remind me what market vendors or staff have to do and how I can help to find or create resources for them. When I feel that way, I take myself to a market or to a farm or an artist’s workshop or store to help. This last week, I was able to do just that and to experience the first weekend of the massive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s 47th year, 45 of them held at the Fairgrounds in the Gentilly neighborhood. For just a little while, I became a dipper for La Divina Gelateria.
I first met gelato wizards Katrina and Carmelo when they applied to become vendors at the Uptown farmers market in 2006 or so. We knew that they weren’t likely to stay forever as vendors, but their locally sourced ingredients, business savvy and wide set of connections around New Orleans made them a good choice to become a short-term vendor, especially in those post-levee break times. See, many of our vendors had not returned yet but we did have thousands of repairing residents and first responders greedy for any sort of authenticity and regular activity flocking to our Tuesday market. We thought LDG’s energy would be helpful in those months, and it was.
They quickly moved from their umbrella spot to a few storefront locations around town, but remained regular shoppers at the markets and supporters of the organization, even selling our market t-shirts in their stores for a while. I follow them on social media and try to catch up with Katrina whenever possible, so when they let the universe know they were searching for volunteers to work their stand set up next to the Fais Do-Do stage, I emailed her. She wrote me back right away offering me a spot on the first weekend for 2.5 hours and the chance to attend the rest of the day for free (JF costs 80 bucks a day to just get in the door!) along with the use of their own locked port-a-let and tent area for crew members to hang out when not working (don’t laugh-people would pay large amounts of money to get those added items if they could.)
The festival has dozens and dozens of selections of the best food in town, some of which is only available during these 2 weekends.That is because even when some of the city’s classic restaurants close, they hold on to their spot out at the fairgrounds to continue to sell their items to appreciative audiences; it helps that the festival actually has a “no carnival food” policy to guide their choices and maintain the quality.
The yellow booths all over the map are the food booths
I well know how the festival food staff was instrumental in 2006 + in getting some of their hardest hit vendors back to the festival, doing what they could to help those struggling by finding them kitchens to work from and (rumor has it) even assisting with resources when possible. I heard about the encouraging calls from the festival staff that made a great deal of difference to many of those who lost their homes and businesses and were done without any expectation of a return by those vendors or to gain any publicity for their actions.
What everyone does know is that the presentation, food handling and prices are managed extremely well by the festival’s food staff and by the vendors who work from the extensive rules and suggestions of the festival staff. If you follow me on Facebook, you might have seen my post last Saturday about the connections between the market and the festival:
…The relationship between JF and CCFM has a long history, starting with the excellent food handling experience that the Fest food staff shared with the market (which allowed the market to write one of the best risk management systems of sampling, temperature controls and product handling of any market that I have seen) and also included a few staff who worked at both the Fest and the markets, and a whole era of food demonstrations in the Grandstand area from market vendors back in the day. …
(I maintain a tattered hope in finding a funder interested in letting me uncover best practices of fairs and festivals to build the professional skills and organizational capacity of farmers markets in areas such as production, sponsorships and educational activities- if so, certainly this festival’s experience would be one of those selected.)
Anyone can see that being a food vendor at a festival that attracts 60,000* people per day on a slow day and double that on a big day and runs for 7 days over 2 weekends requires some planning, effort and some sleepless nights.
So LDG’s tent became my workplace for a little while last week. They offer 8 kinds of gelato under a double tent, close to the main walkway that meanders around the infield.
This is owner Carmelo on Day 1 at his tent, telling food writer, radio and tv host Poppy Tooker that the espresso machine was malfunctioning and the affogato was not ready to go yet. She was clearly horrified but gracious about the lack of espresso since she gladly came back the next morning.
Once I got in the tent, Katrina gave me a 2-minute tutorial on where to stow items, what each person would be doing and what was being offered that day. The flavors were: Milk chocolate, butter pecan, cookies and cream, creme brulee, red cream soda, strawberry balsamic, azteca (spicy) chocolate, and salted caramel. She told me to pull 3 full scoops each time and how to know if it was to be in a cup or cone. She explained the precise actions that would happen for each order.
I was assigned as a dipper, standing next to the other (more experienced) dipper on a tiny platform (that I almost stepped off 2 or 3 times without noticing ) with my back to the cashiers but within earshot and sight of my expediter. The platform is necessary cuz the cooler is raised off the ground (per food storage guidelines), allowing the machinery to work better on the grassy infield which also means water intake from flooding is less of an issue in case of rain (as happened on the first Sunday, delaying opening of the festival for 3.5 hours.**)
Owner Katrina working as a dipper when it got very busy during a shift changeover.
The other dipper did 60-70% of the orders as her cashier was nearer to the list of flavors and mine was sitting in a camp chair which made her hard to see when you walked up. However, she made up for it with a flair for customers and energetic calls to those standing out front and for orders ( “Come on up folks! Order here.” “AFFOGATOOO AzTECa please!” “Twooooo milk chocolate cones please!” )
My expeditor was a young woman visiting New Orleans, there to be an intern for a season for local community initiatives. She was excited about the opportunity to get into JazzFest, able to help a local business and was a hard worker.
I did fine for the first 2 hours keeping up with my minimal orders without problem. Then, the crowds came. Interestingly, even though the gates open at 11 or 11:30 each day, thousands of attendees don’t arrive until well after 3 pm even though the stages shut down by 7:25 pm with no exceptions. The biggest names draw those who only come for their show and who don’t care to wander the grounds seeing what else is available at the 11 other stages and the dozens or so craft and demonstration areas. (I know- it makes locals crazy.)
So my last half hour the orders came fast and thick and still, for the most part I kept up. The other dipper had explained how to place a cup or cone as each order was called at the flavor asked for and then dipping each and handing to the expediter. All went well until a slew of affogato-style cups came which meant each time the expediter had to leave the area and walk across the tent to the espresso machine, waiting for the shot to be added, then to walk it back to the customer. As a result, I had to dip each regular cup or cone, step off my platform and hand it to the customer myself. It mostly went fine but I give my expeditor lots of credit for helping me catch up when she got back.
Other more experienced staff were also on hand to help, watching levels of gelato, switching out them quickly between orders and cleaning the scoopers as needed in the 3-part set up for washing, rinsing and sanitizing.
Still, except for a few that I missed hearing and delayed in getting out for a minute or two, my expeditor and I did fine and the good news is once that person gets their gelato in hand, all delay is forgiven.
When Katrina thanked me and let me go, I was grateful to have done the shift and even more grateful that I had not impaired them too badly on my initial run. I learned the complexity of a simple gelato cup and the teamwork it takes to make great food happen on a grassy area of a festival.
(Next week: I’ll be holding down the fort at my pal’s St. Charles Avenue shop while she vends at the Contemporary Crafts section of JazzFest.)
*From Wikipedia: Record single day attendance was 160,000 for the Dave Matthews Band and Mystikal on Second Saturday, 2001. Elton John in 2015 probably drew 130,000+, and that’s the only other time they’ve passed 100,000. The old record was 98,000 on Second Saturday in 1998, when Jimmy Buffett headlined. Typical attendance is 60,000 on a weekday, 80-90,000 on a weekend.
** Sunday: torrential rain and tornado warnings delayed the opening of JF until 3 pm and left the vendors camped out in the Grandstand building, hoping the water would not make it in their tents. Some of these folks were not so lucky..