Last weekend we were featured vendors at The Great Googa Mooga: an epic three-day food and music festival in Brooklyn, produced by Superfly Presents (Bonnaroo, Outside Lands). It’s known for putting the music second and putting the emphasis on the food — idolizing chefs like indie rock stars, plastering their faces on trading cards and subway ads. As someone who at one point in her career has stuck her arm elbow deep in a floor drain to see if a dead animal was clogging the pipe, being treated like that is pretty darn nice.
The other thing Googa Mooga is known for, thus far, is for being an epic shitshow.
Year one saw long lines, food shortages, and multiple logistical failures. This year, when we were invited to join the party, the first thing Superfly addressed were its previous shortcomings and how it was working to improve them. The company hired an amazing culinary logistical coordinator who actually understood how the food industry worked. Superfly was organized to the point where it seemed that the event was being micromanaged. There were so many fucking meetings and emails. I once facetiously told my husband I hoped this year would be a disaster, just so I would never have to read a Googa Mooga email again as long as I lived. Had I known then that I am, in fact, Local Small Batch Firestarter, I would have kept my damn mouth shut.
While for the most part Friday and Saturday ran smoothly, the days were still plagued by mistakes and led to slower than expected sales. On Sunday, despite weather reports to the contrary, it rained. A lot.
It rained so much that the grounds turned to mud, and the New York City Parks Department cancelled the event in the interest of protecting the grass. This left thousands of dollars of unsold food that could not be used, and in many cases, was unfit for donation under NYC’s strict “low-sodium-for-the-homeless” policies (seriously, this is a real law).
You would think that, at this point, I’d be pitchfork-wielding mad, but surprisingly, I’m not. In the days after Googa ended, Superfly reached out to all the companies affected and had us thoroughly document our expenses and losses. Yesterday, I had a lengthy phone call with the company’s director of business development, who informed me that not only will Superfly not taking their planned cut of our sales, but they will also be compensating us all in some way for our losses, including refunds of many of the fees we paid to them to participate.
Does this make everything that happened OK? Of course it doesn't. But sadly, this is not the most screwed I have ever felt by a food event — at least Superfly is manning up and owning their mistakes. Here’s what Googa fully admitted to me was their biggest problem: their first year was great for the vendors, but not the public. This year they overcompensated in the other direction: by making too many concessions to please the public, they caused the vendors to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ll agree with that. I’ll also point out the following failures:
Failure: Cutesy Themed Food Villages
Say you’re going to have a bunch of vendors at your festival that are pretty similar — wouldn't it be great if you put them all together? This way you can make a cute little area whose name will look just fantastic on all your PR materials! “Spend the Day in Hot Dog Land!”; “Frolic in our Magical Cupcake Forest!”; “Ain’t Nothing Fishy About Smelt Alley!” Everyone will think you’re so clever, they’ll totally overlook the fact that most of your vendors didn't make any money, trashed your event on the internet, and will never work with you again!
We've been the victim of this stupid idea multiple times — and each time we've lost our shirts. Customers will not go to every single booth and try offerings from each- they will pick only one (usually the most accessible one or the one with the longest line), or just skip the area all together because they’re overwhelmed by the choices. Break your vendors up. Give people lots of different options when they walk around — it makes everyone's bottom lines a lot more even.
Failure: Bottled Water
We were all required to buy water through Googa Mooga, and sell each bottle at $3 a piece. I didn't have any issue with this at first; nearly every event we do has an exclusive water sponsor such as Fiji or Voss, and it’s pretty standard to not want someone bringing in a competing product when you've spent tens of thousands on advertising.
Price of water?
Ok, admittedly, $1.14 per bottle of water is pretty steep. But I’ve paid $2.25 retail for premium water before, and $3 seems somewhat normal at a music event. We order 40 cases.
Know what shows up?
Forty cases of 16.9 fluid ounce bottles of Nestle Pure Life. When I buy these individually at a bodega, they’re 75 cents a piece. Retail price for a case?
There was never an “official water sponsor.” There was only Spectrum Concessions, the water distributor, ripping all of us off. $1600 of water “collected from a well or municipal water supply,” a.k.a., tap water. And thanks to peoples resistance to paying $3 for tap water, we sold about twenty bottles total.
As you may have noticed in that literature I posted above, it says that we could sell back any unsold cases of water to Spectrum Concessions for $25 a case, so it could resell them again for $40 a case. I would have lost $625 on the deal, but I got shystered. It happens.
You didn’t think this story simply ends here, did you? Because that would be far too easy!
Googa Mooga got cancelled because of rain. And know what rain does? It makes things wet! Like my 39 ½ cases of bottled water, which were no longer in good enough condition for Spectrum to take back for resale!
Here are half of those cases and two large coolers packed with water stacked behind my apartment; the remainder is stored in my hallway and in the trunk of my car. I have 836 unsellable bottles of water that are sharing space with us, our two children, and two cats. I can’t even sell them for $1 on the exit ramp of the BQE without taking a loss.
Lesson for Superfly and any other production company listening: Ripping off your vendors before the festival has even started does not bode well for future relationships. Even if my family is about to have the cleanest kidneys in all of North America.
Failure: Nobody Wanted This Event In Prospect Park
Personally, I have no desire to get in the “Get These Damn Hipsters Off My Public Lawn” fight — I’m from South Brooklyn where lots of our parks continually look like, and are literally covered in, shit, so Prospect Park post-Mooga still looks gorgeous to me. But there was a very, very loud opposition to this event and it’s use of public parkland, with people cyber bullying small business owners as well as the event organizers.
Ultimately the reason Sunday was cancelled had nothing to do with Superfly — the NYC Parks Department was the one that flipped the kill-switch a full 90 minutes after doors were supposed to open, saying the rain combined with the crowds would have destroyed the lawn (entirely true). If this event had been on Randall’s Island, the Piers in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Coney Island, Floyd Bennett Field or any of the dozens of more appropriate locations I can think of offhand, it would still have gone on, rain be damned. Sixteen people might have actually stayed, but it would have gone on.
Failure: Well…It Rained
Let’s not act like this is the first and only outdoor food event in the history of New York City — it’s not even the only one planned for this year. And while chefs can, with much difficulty, cook in the rain, eating is another story.
Solution? Tents! Just put up 30’ x 30’ tents in various places around the grounds, place a bar inside each, and you’re good. People will use them to flee the rain, take refuge from the sun, meat-coma recovery naps — the list is endless! Cost of tents versus the cost of fixing all the bad PR you get from your event being rained out? You could buy 39 ½ cases of bottled water with money like that! (P.S. If any companies want to pay me enormous sums of money as “consulting fees” for even more of my genius ideas, I’m happy to take said monies!)
Failure: Nobody Talked About The Food
We worked so freaking hard on making our addition to the Googa Mooga menu amazing, and all anyone can talk about is the stupid rain! PAY ATTENTION TO US, GODDAMIT!
This was our Car Bomb Parfait: a Guinness stout brownie with Bailey’s cannoli cream, Jameson whiskey ganache and beer nut praline, and it was delicious. Other dishes people really should be talking about: Jeepney’s sliders, Caracas Rockaways’ arepas, James’ duck corn dog — know what? I ate about 30 things at Googa and they were all pretty damn spectacular. This was probably one of the best food events I’ve been to, and I’m sure much of it had to do with the fact the restaurants were actually getting paid for their food. People tend to bring their A-game when that happens
For all the failures, there were a lot of successful moments this weekend that barely anyone is mentioning. Googa Mooga still treats chefs with more respect than most events. Superfly isn’t taking its financial cut of the little money we all made, even though it could. The operators made a conscious effort to actually listen to us both before and after the festival. They gave us our own private port-o-potties that didn't get soiled by drunk people who ingested so much alcohol they had forgotten how to do their business in a hole, despite doing so semi-automatically for at least twenty-plus years of their lives.
Most importantly, when you watch groups of friends sharing food and laughing, dancing together and having fun, it reminds you exactly why you got into this business in the first place. When you weeded through all the mistakes, failures and bullshit, you could see flashes of the event Superfly was hoping to have, and honestly, it was pretty wonderful.
Will Googa Mooga return to New York City? Will Superfly adequately correct it’s failures? Will all the vendors recoup their losses? Will I actually be able to drink all this bottled water without drowning myself from the inside? I don’t have the answers to any of that, yet. But I know that if Superfly fixes their mistakes, makes smarter decisions, and does right by the hardworking chefs who truly were the backbone of the event, Robicelli’s would consider coming back next year. Especially if we’re all in a really big tent and/or there are artisan ponchos for everyone. Also, if those responsible go for that “Huey Lewis/Eddie Money” double bill I’ve requested.