If a New Orleans festival devoted to fried chicken sounds like a good time to you, you’re not alone. The first edition of the Fried Chicken Festival held last fall proved to be such a draw that its venue at Lafayette Square was swamped by the turnout, and many of the food vendors were unable to keep up with demand.
Last week, event organizers revealed plans for the festival’s return, and this time they’re preparing for far larger crowds and are gearing up to present the event as a national draw, not just a local one.
The second annual Fried Chicken Festival will be held in Woldenberg Riverfront Park on the edge of the French Quarter, and it will expand to a two-day event, scheduled for Sept. 23 and 24. It will again be a free, outdoor festival with live music, though now it will be on a riverfront park roughly five times the size of the original venue.
The Spears Group, the New Orleans marketing firm that created the Fried Chicken Festival, estimates that the first festival had an attendance of 40,000 people. This year, the group said, it’s planning for 100,000, with more vendors, more music stages and activities, and new requirements for food vendors.
“We’re going big,” said Spears Group President and CEO Cleveland Spears III. “We didn’t want to grow this incrementally. We want it to grow exponentially and capitalize on the potential that we know is there.”
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 Fried Chicken Festival room to grow further. It will continue to be held on the fourth weekend of September, and Spears hopes it will become an annual draw for travelers.
The number of vendors is expanding from 28 in 2016 to 35 this year. Raising Canes Chicken Fingers is back as the event’s presenting sponsor for 2017.
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The idea behind the Fried Chicken Festival clearly struck a chord in New Orleans. Many different types of vendors signed up to show off their version of the dish, from traditional to offbeat and original. The impending competition for festival awards was a hot topic among restaurateurs leading up to the event's debut.
In the end, a panel of guest judges picked the Chalmette eatery Jazz City Café for “Best Use of Chicken in a Dish” while “Best Fried Chicken” honors went to the Original Fiorellas’ Café.
Not everyone who turned out for the event ended up eating fried chicken, however. The crowd far exceeded what producers had expected, with lines stretching so far back from the fried chicken vendors that it was sometimes hard to discern where they actually began.
The day after the inaugural event, organizers doubled down, vowing to hold the next Fried Chicken Festival in a larger venue and expand its scope. This time, Spears said, there will be new requirements for the sort of equipment the vendors use, plus the number of fryers and staffers they have.
"We're spreading the demand around with more vendors and over two days of the festival, and with the new requirements they'll be improving their output," said Spears.
The 2017 event will have two music stages and a cooking demo stage, hosted by the chef and culinary personality Jeff Henderson.
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