While families bit into churros and navigated the winter carnival that is downtown San Jose during the holidays, the season of giving became a little less magnanimous around Christmas in the Park. And no, we’re not talking about the shooting. Ryan Sebastian, the entrepreneur behind Moveable Feast, approached organizers months ago about providing some food options for the December event. They—well, specifically Christmas in the Park director Jason Minsky—apparently blew him off. Sebastian, however, was determined to expand the menu for downtown’s holiday guests. He got permits from the city, posted up the Facebook invites for a one-night “Christmas Truck Lane,” as he called it, on S. Market Street, right across from the holiday fair. Minsky got wind of the plan and, leveraging his clout as head of a popular downtown event, summoned the San Jose PD to disband the food truck gathering. “This is a truly despicable move on your part,” Minsky fired off in an email to Sebastian a few days before Christmas, along with a declaration that he’ll never work with him because of the incident. Like, ever. So there. Police arrived on scene and weren’t immediately able to dispatch Sebastian’s fleet. “They had to really dig through the books to find a violation,” he recalls. After a fair bit of on-site investigation, they found a citable technicality: the trucks lacked a peddler’s permit. Not Sebastian’s fault—the city should’ve told him—but still grounds for dismissal. The city’s understaffed and controversy-shy police generally don’t divert crime-fighting resources to epicurian turf squabbles. They’ve declined to enforce food codes at St. James Park, where neighbors have petitioned Chief Larry Esquivel to crack down on illegal feedings of the homeless by do-gooders. (Sign the petition here.) Minsky declined to talk about the skirmish. For Sebastian, the bigger issue is that Christmas in the Park needs to up its culinary game. Keep the cocoa and churros, he says, but ditch the nondescript fair food. “Carnie cuisine is not befitting of a world-class city such as San Jose,” Sebastian advised Minsky.
SJI Extra: Ryan Sebastian’s advice to Jason Minsky:
I believe that we have been talking about concepts and serious proposals to include food trucks at Christmas in the Park for nearly two years now. You might disagree with the bold approach we took, but sending the police to throw out our vendors on a technicality on a night with long wait times at the food tents didn’t exactly help.
But here is the real issue—in the past fifteen years, our society has completely changed its relationship to food. Food has been the cornerstone of the most exciting public gatherings throughout the country (think Outside Lands, Eat Real, or Brooklyn Flea). People are now passionate about food in ways that previous generations find amusing. Food is the new rock and roll.
In this regard, Christmas in the Park is woefully behind the times. Please don’t misunderstand me—I totally get that you taking on the Executive Director position is a huge undertaking and it speaks well to your character of community service. I know that getting this event on stable financial footing after a massive shortfall in public funds is nothing short of a herculean task. For that, you and the board should absolutely be praised. In my times meeting you, I felt that you totally get what it takes to make something successful. I’m just not sure if the Board gets it (this is why I’m cc’ing some of them in this message). It is my strongly held belief that you can massively improve the entire experience of Christmas in the Park through a new curated food program while increasing revenue.
In short, my message to the Board is this:
Keep churros and hot chocolate. Drop everything else.
The existing selection of food vendors shows no curation and has little relationship to the exciting diversity of our city. Carnie cuisine is not befitting of a world class city such as San Jose…and I’m not talking about the booths at Winter Wonderland either. Reduce the overall booth count and use food trucks and/or carts to add or reduce capacity according to demand. Bring in exciting items such as lobster rolls, ramen burgers, and liquid nitrogen fused ice cream tacos. Create new traditions.
Develop an appealing, but unified menu design for food booths.
The existing menus are a design disaster and imply low quality food. It would have been better to design the entire thing in Comic Sans. I believe you have some people with design experience on the board—I’m sure they could whip up something that would be much more appealing and reflect higher quality cuisine that folks are increasingly demanding. Change booth lighting to warm white to enhance food presentation.
Require vendors to accept credit cards
This may temporarily result in lower ATM revenues, but will increase the health of your vendors and allow you to charge more in the future. A side benefit is that vendors who try to hide money shy away from taking credit card. If they hide it from the government, they will hide from you. These are vendors that should be avoided. Another potential benefit is a partnership with Paypal that can drive further sales (they worked with Downtown Ice this year on a $10 off promotion) and I work with them quite often.
Devote 20% of marketing to pictures of food.
Pictures of food make people go crazy and result in huge social media exposure. Especially if it is a unique menu item they may have seen on television. We’ve built our entire social media enterprise on pictures of food. This a hugely cost effect form of marketing.
Charge vendors weekly instead of requiring seasonal prepayment.
This is the biggest obstacle to reforming the food program. Food service ranks somewhere below non-profits when it comes cash flow. Requiring a massive $7,500 cash payment before serving one item drastically reduces your potential vendors to low performing food concepts that rely on captive audiences to drive sales. Great food concepts have options, and they will turn their nose at arrangements like this. Instead, I recommend that you charge flat fees per meal shift prepaid weekly. Food trucks might say yes to paying $100 for a lunch service at the park when a typical booth would be quiet. That same truck may be willing to pay $200 to do a dinner shift on the following day. $300 per day over 30 days is $9,000 (a 20% revenue increase over the current $7,500 vendor fee). CITP clearly has the attendance. It is time to take advantage of it.
Whether my company is involved or not (most likely not and that is okay), I would like to donate my time and experience towards helping reshape the food program at Christmas in the Park. I believe that a curated food program that highlights the best in local culinary innovation could help this special tradition grow beyond the stale offerings of the past and truly reflect the diversity and caliber of this city. Not to mention a 20% increase in revenue.