If you were at the debut edition of the Fried Chicken Festival in downtown New Orleans last fall, it might have seemed like the whole world was there too. Certainly, it could feel like that from the end of one of the long lines for fried chicken at an event that was inundated with festival goers.
Rather than trim back, however, the producers of the event quickly asserted their intention to grow bigger, and today they have announced a rebranding as part of that push.
The event is now officially called the National Fried Chicken Festival. It will now be a two-day festival, scheduled for Sept. 23 and 24 at a new location at Woldenberg Riverfront Park. Its organizers have already begun courting a national audience for the event, which remains focused on a dish with an appeal that crosses boundaries and spans borders.
“Everyone loves fried chicken, that was the idea from the start,” said festival founder Cleveland Spears, head of the New Orleans marketing and events firm the Spears Group. “Things that exude authenticity do very well, and nothing is more authentic than fried chicken.”
His company is hosting a fried chicken dinner in New York City tonight, on National Fried Chicken Day, to help introduce the festival to national media. The chef and Food Network personality Jeff Henderson, spokesperson for the festival, will host the dinner at the Breslin Bar & Dining Room in Manhattan.
Spears said the range of vendors for the National Fried Chicken Festival will expand this year to include restaurants and other food pros from across the country. He said vendors from 10 states have signed up so far. The Baton Rouge-based chicken chain Raising Cane's is the festival’s presenting sponsor again this year, while Spears’ company has brought on other national sponsors for 2017, including AT&T and Best Buy.
Despite production problems at the inaugural event, the interest generated by the concept last year has convinced Spears that he can develop the festival into an annual draw for travelers to New Orleans in late September.
New Orleans is home to an ever-growing roster of food festivals and events, though the Fried Chicken Festival caused a stir when its plans were first announced last year. Many local restaurants proved eager to show off their version of the dish and compete for its awards. In the end, it was small players in the city's dining scene who cleaned up, with judges giving “Best Fried Chicken” honors to the Gentilly joint the Original Fiorellas’ Café and the Chalmette eatery Jazz City Café winning “Best Use of Chicken in a Dish."
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The public turnout to the free festival, however, proved overwhelming. Its original venue at Lafayette Square was jam packed and many of the food vendors were unable to keep up with demand, leading to long lines and complaints from festival goers.
The day after the festival, Spears said the event would return bigger and better the following year. In March, the Spears Group announced it would expand from one to two days and relocate to Woldenberg Riverfront Park, on the edge of the French Quarter. It will again be a free, outdoor festival with live music, though now it will be on a riverfront park with much more room.
“People will see the investments we’re making to make it better. We’ve doubled the days and increased the size by a factor of five,” said Spears. “We have new minimum standards for the vendors for staffing, equipment and food. We’re preparing for 100,000 people and we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
Woldenberg Park hosts other events through the year, including the main music stages for the French Quarter Festival each April. Spears said his company picked the location to give the National Fried Chicken Festival room to grow further. It will continue to be held on the fourth weekend of September.
“We’re confident in the concept, confident that Louisiana will step up and support it and I’m confident in my team to pull this off,” said Spears.
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