Festival Booth: Yay or Nay?

Last week, Michael and I ran Lino’s Italian Restaurant’s very first festival booth. We slung homemade meatball submarines and lasagna for $5 each and worked hard to entice people to visit our brick and mortar location near by.   We made t-shirts, signs, and even did a little dancing.  Although less than profitable, it was four cold, rainy days of learning.   Although I cannot say I am an expert of hometown festivals with only one under my belt, I’d like to offer my insight for independent restaurants looking to gain more exposure.

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1. Attend the festival as a guest.  This might have been our biggest mistake.  Our choice of Troy Daze was based on the relatively inexpensive price of setting up and the smaller crowd.  Not knowing what to expect, we wanted to start small.  Taking the festival’s chairperson’s word that there would be 50,000 people all hungry for meatball subs, we were a little shocked to find that the much smaller crowd (5,000 people) wanted only fried carnival food.  Had we attend the festival for ourselves the previous year, we might have been able to tell that Troy Daze’s clientele was not for our restaurant.  We might have fared better at a festival geared towards food, not rides.  

2. Critique your menu to the weather.  Our only saving grace was the fact that the weekend of the festival was frigidly cold.  Our piping hot lasagna warmed up chilled hands and kept people toasty as they enjoyed the festival’s rides.  Although it can be difficult to plan your food’s temperature for the impending weather, it’s a good idea to leave some room for hot or cold drinks.  Had we also offered hot chocolate or coffee, our booth might have been packed.

3. Market your hottest feature.  At Lino’s, everything is homemade.  My boyfriend’s grandma and great grandma spend their mornings making sauces, pastas, soups, stocks, and meatballs from scratch, the old Italian way.  Since this is unique to us, it made sense for us to play it up.  Making signs highlighting your unique selling point is a sure fire way to get people’s attention.  In addition, Michael’s ten year old sister helped us out, and who can say no this adorable girl?

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4.  Use social media! If your restaurant is not on Facebook and Twitter, it should be (more on that later).  If it is, USE IT!  Post reminders that your business will have a booth, post links to the festival’s website, travel directions, whatever,  a week or so before the event.  When the event is live, post photos of you and your gang having fun, serving food, and enjoying the festivities.  Someone sitting on Facebook will likely think you’re having more fun and come and check you out.

5. Beautify your tent.  We didn’t really take into account the aesthetics of our tent.  White tablecloths, white walls, and a big, silver warmer was pretty much the visual visitors got of our fine dining establishment.  It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t memorable.  Take the time to pick out fun tablecloths, make eye catching signs, and hang things from your tent wall.  If it doesn’t give you more traffic (and it should) at least you’ll have a more pleasant living space.

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Here at Lino’s we are checking the surrounding area’s calendars for our next festival.  With one under our belt, we’re hoping to knock ’em out in round two.  But what about you?  Has your restaurant set up a booth before?  How’d it go?  Would you do it again?  Let us know by commenting below, we’d love to hear from you!

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Forest Grill / Birmingham, MI

Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press

Photo courtesy of Detroit Free Press

After becoming enrapt in Bryan Polcyn’s book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, Michael was eager to try the author’s restaurant, located only a half hour from our home.  After being disappointed in previous dining experiences in the area, we weren’t sure what to expect from the restaurant, but we were ready to try Forest Grill.

Nestled close to downtown, we arrived for an early dinner on a Saturday, where we were seated immediately.  A friendly hostess handed us our menu and we were quickly engulfed in the descriptions of the seasonal menu.  Our waiter, a tall man with kind eyes, promptly brought us bread and water, and briefly filled us in on the menu.  Knowledgeable and proud of the offerings, he was incredibly helpful throughout the entire night, providing excellent recommendations.

To begin, I ordered a glass of Cave de Vendome Cocagne Rosé Pineau D’Aunis, Loire 2011, a delightfully sweet Rose reminiscent of a balmy summer day.  The large selection of wines could possibly overwhelming, but with a well read sommelier, and a much smaller selection of wines by the glass, it was easy to choose what might pair best with your night.  In addition to the wine we ordered a half plate of the charcuterie board and cheese plate.  According to Michael, the charcuterie board was out of this world, possibly one of the best he had ever had.  With Proscuitto, duck pate, and Pancetta, he was more than pleased.  The cheese plate was less impressive, but the pickled additions were perfectly preserved.

At the recommendation of our waiter, we ordered the farm egg, which was a beautifully wrapped 5 minute egg surrounded by Nameko mushrooms and Madeira Sabayon.  It was something I would be happy to indulge in every morning.

When Michael’s veal loin and my strawberry gazpacho arrived, we were a little floored.  For Michael, his loin was twirled alongside asparagus and chanterelles.  It was obvious that the chef had given some serious thought to what should accompany the veal, instead of just slapping a potato and vegetable next to his meat.  He claimed that the veal was cooked tenderly and the sides were impressive.  My gazpacho faired similarly, as the fresh strawberries were muddled together with an artful dash of sauce and the faintest hint of ramps and basil.  It seemed to be the perfect meal to kiss summer goodbye softly.

For dessert, we feasted on the sweetest Mille Feuille, a French delicate puff pastry with a lemon mousse, which was accompanied by fresh berries.   We also indulged in a marscapone mousse, complete with candied rhubarb and mint.  Both were delightful, melt in your mouth sweet pieces of heaven.

I am happy to say that Forest Grill gave us exactly what we wanted-a delicious, well thought out meal that didn’t leave us feeling stuffed.  The atmosphere was quite and clean, leaving only room for great conversation from the company you bring.  Certainly a great place to take a loved one.

Why We Can’t Stop Checking Labels

Michael and I had breakfast with his mother, Marie, today.  As we sat around our table at a Rochester favorite, Michael picked up the maple syrup, a staple for restaurants that serve mostly pancakes.  He was intrigued to find a drawing of beautiful pine trees and a log cabin on the cover and flipped it over to find out where the syrup was made.

Batavia, IL.

Most of you have probably never heard of Batavia, so let me explain a few things.  First of all, Batavia is a Northwest suburb of Chicago, much like the suburb I hail from.  In this area, there are no trees or log cabins like the one depicted on the label.  There is also no tapping of maple trees, or really any other food production in the area aside from corn.  In fact, the surrounding area, which includes my hometown and Batavia, produce little more than government subsidized corn byproducts.  Sure enough, looking at the label we discovered that there was no maple syrup anywhere in the bottle, only things like high-fructose corn syrup.

Marie then began to tell a story about how she was trying to teach her young son about what really goes into food.  On a recent grocery shopping trip, she had taught him how to read labels, and how to only look for foods with three ingredients or less.  He was appalled by what he found in some of his favorite foods, perplexed to not even be able to pronounce some of the ingredients.  He had picked up a bag of Fritos and was delighted to find that it only contained three ingredients!

Although we should not all rejoice that Fritos are so called “simple” foods and buy mass quantities, it is important to take away the moral that Marie, Michael, and I took away from this story.  As educated, conscious, and healthy citizens that we all were, we agreed how easy it was to be duped by the foods that lined our shelves.  Even though Michael and I use mostly whole ingredients, not things that come in boxes with food labels, we are still tricked into believing that some things like our watermelon are as natural as possible.  Do you really believe seedless watermelon is an act of Mother Nature?

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The most alarming thing, perhaps, was the fact that no matter how conscious we were about the foods we chose to eat and no matter how many articles and books we read about food, we would always be blind to many of the true facts that surround our food.  Why do we have to settle for the fact that most of our food is sweetened by corn?  Or that the cows that become our steaks are fed an unnatural diet?

We ultimately have the choice about what we put in our bodies.  The sad part is that short of becoming a homesteader and growing all our own food, we cannot be 100% sure about what exactly it is we are eating.  However, this is our chance to take the industry out of food.  I dare you to shop at your local farmers market and make friends with the person who grows your vegetables.  Chances are, he or she isn’t a farmer for the high profit margin (there isn’t one).  They are growing food because they care about what we put in our bodies, and perhaps they want to stop the madness that has become everyday grocery shopping.  Let’s create healthier choices for everyone by educating ourselves about food, seedling to dinner plate.

Key to Happiness

I woke up the other morning to a magazine sitting at the kitchen table.  I poured myself a glass of water and gleefully tucked into my eggs, until a headline caught my eye.  “Break Your Coffee Habit!” it suggested incredulously, as if America’s love of coffee was stoking our drug habit or killing puppies.  Along with the numerous other headlines over various publications about kicking xyz habit here, a mantra my mom taught me rang in my head, “everything in moderation.”

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When I was a kid, ice cream was my best friend.  I ate a large bowl of the sugary cream at least once a day, piled high with bright colored sprinkles and maybe ever some chocolate syrup.  I ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s once a day for two weeks while living in Chicago, and going out to handmade gems is still one of the simplest pleasures in my life.  Although I have (thankfully) grown out of my gorging habit, I still like to enjoy a bowl more often than not.  Also, as I have grown older, my palate has changed from sweet to more savory, and coffee is one of my favorite indulgences.  Robust, dark, and mysterious, I save the velvety goodness for intense writing sessions, tastings at local joints, and dessert with my family.  It is not an everyday occurrence and affording myself a cup sometimes brings me to tears of joy.

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It makes me sad that people feel the need to cut ties altogether with a food or drink they love.  Certainly there are certain circumstances where it may be necessary to stop cold turkey, but should we give up that cup of coffee forever?  Never again taste the sickenly sweet frosting off a cupcake?  If something brings us that much joy why should we feel so guilty about it?

According to the CDC, 69.2% of American adults are overweight.  This fact can make it easy for doctors, nutritionists, and skeptics to point the finger at our love of sugary sweet and fatty foods.  This may be true, but I know many people who indulge in the occasional piece of cake or hamburger and look great.  The key words are indulge and occasional.   Treating decadent food for what it is, a treat, and truly enjoying the flavor is important.  You know how when you dive into a brownie sundae and after a few bites it doesn’t taste like anything anymore?  Instead of going for quantity, focus on the quality.

This whole idea of moderation also goes back to the quality of ingredients.  It is much easier to truly get lost in a dark, strong cup of coffee than the watery version most likely served at the gas station.  Enjoying the flavors of your food is more fulfilling than eating to sustain.

So to all those people who think they need to kick that habit, stop.  Start enjoying the food you eat and stop using it as a crutch to support you through each day.  We are fortunate enough to have an abundance of delicious options at our fingertips, so let them amuse your palate.

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Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese / Review

If there is one thing that is constant about me in this world, it is that I love cheese.  Ask my parents and they will gladly tell you the mass amounts of Kraft cheddar I used to consume.  As I grew, so did my palate and now I can say that my happiness lies in artisan wheels.  One of the most frustrating things about good cheese, though, is that purchasing it can be scary.  There are so many kinds, all with vastly different flavors, and you can’t remember any of their names.  You step up to the counter, looking wary, and quickly mumble your favorite cow’s milk variety.  Moments ago, you were confident, ready to break out of your realm of familiarity, but here you are, doing nothing of the sort.

Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese: A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings, written by Tenaya Darlington, effortlessly breaks down those barriers, categorizing each type of cheese as you would a potential suitor.  The chapter of “baby faces” showcases young cheeses like ricotta and burrata, while “Mountain Men” features bold hunks you might like to take on a day outdoors or snack along with a cold brew.  And if Darlington knows anything about cheese (she does, by the way.  Check out her stellar blog), you’ll easily be able to find your way to cheese heaven through her easy guides.

The Italian Di Bruno Bros own the namesake cheese shop in Philly, and have since 1939.  The collaboration is seamless, as there are many tidbits of advice from cheesemongers from the shop sprinkled next to descriptions.

With each description of the taste (which will leave your mouth watering, guarnteed), she also describes their personality.  Leonora, a Spanish goat’s milk cheese, for example, is described as “a head-turning blonde on a lemon cake bender.”  Finally, she lists food that might pair well with the cheese in question, in addition to any wine or beer.

With an indulgent cuisine that can leave many feeling overwhelmed and confused, Darlington mixes guides for buying, pairing, and cooking all into one place.  If you’re too embarrassed to bring in your highlighted, dog-eared copy into your own cheese shop, I suggest making a small list of all that appeals to you.  I know I did!