A Cheesy Idea

By Keith M. Bulicz

Mac ‘n cheese is the ultimate comfort food. In August 2011, members of the parks and rec department sat in the lunch room and discussed what each of us liked most about the food. “I like the gooey cheese.” “I like the cheddar flavor.” “It just makes me feel like a kid again!” At that point I exclaimed, “Carbondale has a Lobster Fest, Snowmass Village has a Chili Fest, Aspen needs to start a Mac ‘N Cheese Fest.”

Approvals First
You may ask how we pulled it off. There were many steps in the process, but the first and most important was obtaining a permit from the city’s Special Events committee. This involved 18 city departments, including engineering (traffic-mitigation plan), environmental health (ZG Green event), fire district, parking/streets, parks and rec, risk-management, transportation, police, and zoning, to name a few. Once the permit was approved, I hit the ground running, first visiting every restaurant I knew and then moving on to the rest. The pitch was to hold a great “free” event in the community that wouldextend our summer business a week longer than Labor Day, give the business exposure to potential new clientele, bring in people from around the region, and put smiles on people’s faces when the economy is struggling.  

Creating Excitement
Some reactions I received were great, and others were funny. “You’re crazy if you think this will happen, but consider me in if you can get it organized.” “What can I do to help because I love mac ‘n cheese?” “Please don’t come back to my restaurant anymore.” “What? You want me to give out samples of food for free?” “We don’t even have mac ‘n cheese on our menu, but count me in.” I quickly rallied 16 restaurants to participate.

The chefs wanted to know how many servings of mac ‘n cheese to prepare. We guesstimated 400 to 500 servings per vendor. More than 2,500 people attended the inaugural event, which caused many vendors to run out of food. Needless to say, it was very successful and a great way to start a new festival.

Logistically, the plan was to close one block of the street called “Restaurant Row” and set up 10- x 10-foot tents for each vendor to serve their special versions of mac ‘n cheese. We set up greeting tables at each end of the street where festival-goers could pick up their mini-sporks and a ticket to cast their vote. Each restaurant competed for the “Peoples Champion” in order to win the “Golden Noodle” trophy. In addition, we provided serving cups, tablecloths, an ice sculpture, music, trophies, aprons, cheese-head hats, and port-o-lets.

In the first year, boxes were placed at each vendor’s booth to collect votes. It worked, but then we had to collect all of the boxes, which wasted valuable time in counting the votes. In the second year, we utilized a text-message service for voting, but discovered a major flaw—people didn’t have to be at the event to actually vote. After much discussion, we went back to ticket voting for the third year and have stayed with that method ever since. We determined that using one voting station for the entire event—instead of individual boxes at each vendor booth—made the process more efficient. 

Mouths To Feed
The cost of the event averages $5,000 for a DJ, staff members, volunteers, sporks, serving cups, aprons, trophies, etc.  We also look for local sponsors, and on average we receive $2,500 in sponsorship money to help cover costs.

One of our recent challenges is that, as the event has grown in popularity, the restaurants have had to provide more and more portions of food to feed over 5,000 visitors per year. This has led to some restaurants declining to participate due to high costs (staffing and product). As a solution, we are looking for additional sponsors to help encourage restaurants to participate. We want to provide from $150 to $400 to each restaurant to help cover some of the expenses. Also, we are considering awarding cash prizes as an additional motivation for the restaurants, as well as the prestige of having the trophy in their restaurant for the year. We have created four more prize categories beyond the original People’s Choice Award:

  • Kids’ Choice
  • Chef’s Choice
  • Judges’ Choice
  • Best Theme.

Viral Video
In 2012, Yahoo filmed the festival, and the video went viral. The event was also featured on Denver News Good Day Colorado’s morning show. A video of the inaugural event can be found on YouTube.

We market the event via social media, the local newspaper, local/state TV, radio interviews/ PSA’s, posters, and word-of-mouth. Media links can be viewed by visiting the Special Events section of our web page at www.aspenrecreation.com.

City Support
In Aspen, one of the requirements for receiving a special-events permit is to meet the ZG Green requirements of having a low impact on the environment. Our Environmental Health Department provided assistance collecting waste in three components—compostable, recyclable, and trash—helping us comply with the requirements (www.aspenzgreen.com). This event wouldn’t be possible without the support of many organizations within the city, the volunteers, and the restaurants that provide the amazing mac ‘n cheese the festival is famous for.

Go For It
When the idea for the festival was introduced, I searched the Internet and couldn’t find anything like it. The Aspen Mac ‘N Cheese Festival is the first of its kind, but it didn’t take long for others to follow. Another group started a traveling Mac ‘N Cheese festival. Even Chicago started one! Who would have thought that a simple dish like mac ‘n cheese would be such a hit? So I’m here to say that even if the idea is “cheesy,” run with it. It may just become a national hit (and go viral).

Keith M. Bulicz is a Recreation Supervisor for the City of Aspen Parks and Recreation Department. He is a Certified Parks & Recreation Professional (CPRP). Reach him at keith.bulicz@cityofaspen.com.