Now in its third year, the King Cake Festival — held by Ochsner to benefit the babies and children at Oschner — takes over Champions Square on Sunday, bringing together bakeries from all over southern Louisiana and Mississippi.
From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., the event will see well-known New Orleans king cake hawkers set up next to unfamiliar bakers from outside the city, all claiming that their king cake is this year’s ruler.
“I know there are some major players from around the New Orleans area that are pretty confident in their king cake,” said J.J. Starbuck, the owner of J.J.’s Café and Donuts (400 Highway East, Patterson) and newcomer to the King Cake Festival, “but we’re pretty confident in ours too. So we’ll see what happens.”
Multiple categories are overseen by a panel of eight celebrity judges that includes Eater NOLA Editor Gwendolyn Knapp, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. and Saints Announcer Mark Romig, Cook Me Somethin’ Mister owner Kristen “Jambalaya Girl” Preau, 610 Stompers Executive Director Mont Creamer, Fox8 News Anchor Shelley Brown, Musician Tom Drummond, Yelp Senior Community Manager Morgan Ford and New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent Tim McConnell.
Each bakery can enter one king cake in one of six categories. Those are Best Traditional New Orleans King Cake; Best Non-Traditional; Most Unique; Most Likely to Replace a Meal; Best Presentation; and the People’s Choice Award, voted on by attendees.
The last category will be huge this year, as attendance continues to swell. The last King Cake Festival had approximately 15,000 visitors.
“Last year, the growth was exponential,” Haydel’s owner and baker David Haydel Jr. said. “They had a much larger crowd, they learned from the first year what’s going to work and what’s not, they laid everything out and the layout was great. People were able to move around and get to all of the bakeries and try everything.”
But according to Haydel, the number of people attending is key. With 27 bakeries participating, you have to get attendees to your booth before they’re stuffed.
“You can only try so much king cake in a day, so it’s important to get as many people eating your king cake as possible,” he said. “They do have a lot of people from out of town who haven’t tried king cake, and, being in Champions Square, they’re going to draw a lot of tourists who are down in the CBD.”
To kick off the one-day festival, there also will be a Smoothie King-sponsored “Gladiator Games.” Registration begins at 8 a.m. for the 9 a.m. one-mile Fun Run around the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the 9:30 a.m. Fitness Challenge, which features a 2½-mile course that takes participants through the Superdome’s eight ramps, 300 stairs and the six fitness stations setup for the event.
But for the bakers, their exercise will come in slinging their king cakes and working to win those awards. Starbuck said it’s a Rocky-like story of the underdog coming in to get a shot at the spotlight.
“That’s the way to go, man,” Starbuck said, “little guy walking in and trying to knock out the champ.”