Food For Thought: Melrose’s Jack Liu On F&B and 6 Years of Music Festivals

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We sat down in Shanghai with entrepreneur and co-founder of Melrose Pizza Jack Liu, with the belief that if there’s one person who knows his festival crowds, it’s bound to be the person who’s been responsible for serving up snacks to ravenous revelers and rockers for 6 years.

We weren’t disappointed. We believe that vendors have a stake in the future of live music that’s often overlooked. To create events that are on a par with some of the experiences seen elsewhere in the world, concerns need to be directed beyond the main stage and line-up. In this article we will recap and comment on the main points of the conversation.

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Background:

Established by Shanghai entrepreneur Jack Liu and his American partner, Melrose opened its first restaurant on Hengshan Road in 1998. The pizzeria quickly became a safehaven from the dangers of dubious early-hour street food. Since then, Melrose has increased the scope of its operations from Shanghai to Suzhou, and is currently running 13 outlets.

Trends in Festival F&B

Melrose began partnering in earnest with music festivals in 2008, brokering a deal with Midi at Century Park. At the time there were few alternatives in music, with the majority of the action being in Formula 1, car shows and the like. Festival organizers were simply fulfilling a need – fans need to eat – and would often employ friends to help out and pull something together.

Since 2008 attitudes toward F&B have changed rather dramatically. Festival organisers now view F&B as a valuable avenue for ancillary revenue generation, as exemplified in the sharp and steady increase in rental fees. Unfortunately in many cases vendors are getting a bum deal, as major festivals are doing little to support vendors by, first and foremost, bringing in adequate footfall. Whilst poor attendance can be attributed to a number of factors, providing sanitary conditions, good access, and sensible site plans isn’t a big ask, and yet many fail to meet these basic needs (in 2013 one festival placed food vendors next to the lavatories, as many of you may remember).

Who Wants Food?

Another interesting find was that even though earning potential amongst the festival-going demographic is reaching parity in Shanghai, expats are likely to exercise about ten times the spending power of locals. This was more attributed to willingness to spend rather than access to disposable income. Are locals feeding up before they party? Or is the stagnant main stage-focused model that currently exists detracting from the possibilities other elements of the festival could offer if explored further?

F&B: From Necessary Evil to Part of the Experience

Brands and partners (including caterers) should proactively work to build synergy with festivals by bringing something unique to the table. Festivals themselves need to initiate this, because there’s so much to gain.

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Jack talked at length about his involvement in the World Extreme Games. One year he was offered 500 tickets with which he was free to run his own promotions ahead of the event. The Melrose team independently set up a mini-stage, where they invited local guests to perform. Alongside this they brokered a sponsorship with Hormel to run a hot dog eating competition. The end result was a nice crowd at the vendor’s tent, a lot of buzz, and even media attention post-event.

Take-Away:

Going forward it seems smaller vendors are going to be priced out, with the likes of Melrose and other established chains being able to sink the upfront costs of participating. This will only increase homogenization between different platforms, so it’s up to festival organisers to take F&B seriously, and to work on creating better value exchanges. Vendors – especially smaller up-starts – are not cash cows. Their needs are simple, and the potential to create a better perception of the overall festival experience by getting F&B right is compelling.

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