Food & Wine: Feeding the local Aspen economy
It takes an entire valley to pull off the three-day Food & Wine Classic in Aspen
The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is the unofficial start of summer in the resort community, which up until mid-June is a quiet and sleepy mountain town with few visitors.
Locals are just returning from offseason excursions all over the globe and businesses are staffing up with new recruits. Hiring is difficult these days with labor shortages and a local housing crisis, so the demands placed on the valley’s businesses to accommodate the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this year are especially challenging.
Earlier this spring at a chamber of commerce board meeting, employers across business sectors in the resort community lamented the effects the labor shortage is having on the guest experience, particularly the difficulty getting people from the airport to town and vice versa.
The week prior to the Food & Wine Classic, occupancy in Aspen is just shy of 50% and then jumps more than 30% for the three-day event, beginning Thursday and ending Sunday, according to Eliza Voss, vice president of destination marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.
Leading up to the epicurean extravaganza, it very much becomes “game on” for local hotels, lodges, restaurants, taxis, limos, property managers, caterers, party planners, audio visual experts, tent providers, linen and uniform companies, florists, and everyone in between to make it happen.
“The Classic couldn’t happen without them,” said Jennifer Albright Carney, chief operating officer for ACRA who has been helping organize the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen for over two decades.
The Classic utilizes 13 different locations for the event’s seminars and culinary demonstrations, Albright Carney noted, and exhibitors use local catering companies to assist them.
Over the years, parties held all over town at restaurants and at private houses outside of the official event have grown exponentially, requiring small armies of caterers, bartenders and other service personnel for support.
“The ancillary aspect of the weekend is so much bigger than before,” said Lori Lefevre, spokesperson for Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. “For every one of those things they come with entourages.”
The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen has been compared to the Sundance Film Festival in that there is an official footprint of the event, but the weekend is full of extracurricular festivities throughout the host resort (in Sundance’s case, Park City, Utah).
In Aspen, vendors and exhibitors partner with local restaurants for winemaker dinners and spirit experts often use bars to showcase their latest concoctions. Wendy Mitchell, owner of Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop and Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar, said the bar will host brand events and celebrity bartenders, but the restaurant is left for the foodies and local workers over the weekend.
“I think our place is for the people who are working,” she said. “A lot of the chefs and those in the industry will come in to enjoy the eclectic wine list.”
Many area restaurants take advantage of Food & Wine’s invitation to have a table in the Grand Tasting Pavilion, which allows them to showcase their latest dishes and interact with patrons.
For years, the number of attendees, exhibitors and vendors had been capped at 5,000 people, which organizers found is the sweet spot for the experience and infrastructure bandwidth. But this year, like last September when the event was moved from the traditional June dates because of the pandemic, the number of people is capped at 75% of 2019 numbers, according to Lefevre.
The reduced capacity was a judgment call made last fall when COVID-19 restrictions were still in place around the country, she noted.
“Plus, we got really good feedback that it was robust with a tiny bit of breathing room,” Lefevre said of fewer people in the Grand Tasting Pavilion and at the seminars.
When tickets went on sale shortly after last year’s event, they sold out in two hours.
The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen years ago did market research on how much an average attendee spends in the resort community on food, alcohol and shopping over the weekend. That figure and the demographics are dated, so the Food & Wine Classic plans to do a study this year to update the market share landscape.
“We all want to know and it’s so valuable,” Lefevre said.
Judging from city sales tax receipts for June 2019 for the pre-pandemic Classic and then in June 2020 when the event wasn’t held, there is no question how much the event impacts the local economy.
Taxable sales in June 2019 were $66 million, with $18 million of that in accommodations and $11 million in restaurants and bars.
Those figures dropped the same month in 2020 to $51.9 million in taxable sales, with $6 million in accommodations and $8 million in the restaurant and bar industry.
“It’s the premiere culinary event in the country, and having it in Aspen elevates the local culinary scene,” Voss said.
This story was featured in the 39th Aspen Times Food & Wine Classic Weekend magazine, available now on location and at http://www.aspentimes.com.