DIY: a vegan food festival for your city, Veggielicious-style  »

The city of Toronto has a great food culture, with a summer full of delicious festivals and restaurants covering a world’s worth of food cultures. But the noshing scene in the city got a whole lot more awesome with the introduction of Veggielicious, billed as the largest festival of its kind in North America. The all-vegan festival ended on Apr. 24, but planning for Veggielicious 2012 is already underway. In the meantime, I got Lisa Blonder Ohlenkamp of the Toronto Vegetarian Association to talk about how the festival sprouted, what the TVA learned and how other cities can do something like it (Do something like it, other cities! It was great).
Vegansaurus: What sparked the idea for Veggielicious?
Lisa Blonder Ohlenkamp: Toronto has two annual restaurant events (Summerlicious and Winterlicious) which allow restaurant patrons to get good deals on prix fixe meals at restaurants for a two-week period. It generates a lot of excitement in the city, and I always feel a bit frustrated by it, as very few of the selections are vegetarian, let alone vegan, and as far as I know, no 100 percent vegetarian restaurant has ever even participated. I, like all of my vegan friends, LOVE food and am enthusiastic about going out and trying new restaurants and dishes, so it seemed only right that there should be an animal friendly restaurant festival.

How much time was there in between the decision to have the Veggielicious event and the event itself?
We started talking about putting on the event in Fall of last year, but because of other scheduled Toronto Vegetarian Association events and dismal winter weather, we decided to hold it in spring, coinciding with Earth Day.

Can you give me an overview of the work involved in putting together the Veggielicious event, from conception to execution?
Among the things we did to put on the event were:

  • Decided whether to invite only restaurants that serve 100 percent vegetarian food to participate or to open it up to all restaurants, as long as they know and respect what vegan means. We decided to include restaurants that also serve meat items because it opens up a lot of possibilities, makes the event less exclusive, encourages omnivores to venture into vegan territory when they might not otherwise have done so, and it shows “standard” restaurants that there’s a great demand for animal-free food.
  • Created a spreadsheet listing the restaurants we liked and hoped would participate in the event [and their contact information].
  • Contacted restaurants by phone, email, and hard copy letter to invite them to participate, and followed up many times when necessary.
  • Based on their feedback and the participation fees we asked each restaurant to contribute (all contributions went towards event publicity in the form of printed materials), received quotes from vendors for postcards, posters, and poster distribution.
  • Designed a poster and postcard for the event (I’m an illustrator, so the labor in this respect was mine and therefore free). Distributed the printed materials to all participating restaurants.
  • Set up a website listing the main event information, participating restaurants and specials, Google maps showing where the events would be held and what would be offered. We also included downloadable versions of the poster so that people could print out letter-sized versions and put them up to help advertise.
  • Asked for and received a prize package from Gardein, and set up a contest in which we encouraged people to tweet, blog, and post on Facebook about the event for a chance to win.
  • Sent out a press release about the Veggielicious and got it into local event listings, did TV and radio interviews about it when approached by local media (we were mentioned or interviewed on three different radio shows and two big local networks, CTV and Global).
  • Worked with volunteers in suburbs to coordinate restaurant participating and materials distribution outside of the city (this only happened shortly before the start of the event).

What kind of response did you get from restaurants when you approached them about Veggielicious?
Generally, people were enthusiastic about the event. Others were hesitant because this was the first year and they were understandably unsure about what the public response would be. Also, when we first approached restaurants we didn’t yet have the graphics designed or the website up, so the event seemed less concrete. Some restaurants expressed interest in participating next year if this first year went well.

Now that Veggielicious is complete, how do you think it went? Was the response what you expected, or larger/smaller?
I think it went well! There was a lot of enthusiasm about the event, and I hope that next year it will continue to grow. It’s hard to gauge how large it actually was, but I’m planning to email the participating restaurants this week to see how things went for them and [get their] feedback.

What surprised you most about the planning process for Veggielicious?
I guess just the amount of time it ended up taking. I think that the first year of any event is probably much more time-intensive than subsequent years, since you learn from experience and can work from past spreadsheets, notes, etc.

What are the plans for future Veggielicious events?
 We’re hoping to make it an annual event, probably held in spring.

Are there any plans in the works to share information from your experience with Veggielicious with other vegetarian- and vegan-focused groups?
I would really love to see events like this pop up all over the world! I think they would work well both in vegan-dense areas like Manhattan as well as smaller cities less known for their veg-friendliness, as long as restaurants are interested in getting creative. Within the next month, I’m planning to put together a guide sharing my experiences and planning documents to help others organize similar events. Having the support of the Toronto Vegetarian Association made organizing Veggielicious much easier than it would have been if I tried to do it all by myself, so I’d encourage people
to work with local veg organizations or to work in groups rather than go it alone, if possible.

If you could change one thing about Veggielicious, after completing your first edition of it, what would it be?
I’d encourage more of the restaurants to offer specials that aren’t normally on their menus, or to create some kind of prix fixe menu. We opened it up and asked restaurants to offer specials of their choosing, but the prix fixe and more unusual options seemed to generate more excitement among diners. Also, I’d love to branch out more into the suburbs and smaller surrounding cities. We did it a bit toward the end of the planning season, but it would have been great to start earlier.

Are there events similar to Veggielicious in your city? Are you now raring to get one going yourself? Watch out for more info from Lisa on how to plan one!

Terri lives in Toronto, Ontario, where she enjoys barbecuing, feeding feral cats, going to local music shows and getting really mad about hockey games. She blogs about her adventures in plant-based eating at The Vegina Monologues.

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