By Brianna Chu
Shawna Dawson got the idea for “LA’s original tasting event” while she was the Director of Marketing for Yelp. Having grown up in Eagle Rock and Highland Park, she has a great appreciation for all the amazing local cuisine. Inspired, she envisioned an event that showcased not only some of the best restaurants and chefs LA had to offer, but also the variety of quality street food vendors and food trucks. However, Yelp showed no vested interest in such an event, so Dawson decided to try and figure out how to run the event herself. Within six months, the first LA Food Fest was held at Downtown Los Angeles’ LA Center Studios in February of 2010. They planned for approximately 5,000 guests…and 20,000 showed up instead!
Dawson is proud of the legacy that the LA Food Fest will leave: it was LA’s first premier food festival – even coining the term “food festival,” Dawson reports – creating a platform and community which supports independent small businesses. They were the first event to support their vendors by subsidizing the costs of participation for almost every participant, which helped to prompt other events to follow suit. And the road has not been without challenges. They’ve changed venues several times; while the event was first held at LA Center Studios in 2010, they held the next several years’ events at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, before changing venues again in 2016 to Exposition Park. In 2017, the LA Food Fest found its home at Coliseum Park in Downtown LA, and for its last two years has been held at Arcadia’s Santa Anita Park. The LA Food Fest has consistently managed to run without a set media partner or financial partner, and have had to hire new staff every year, often for different venues. And yet, over the past ten years, the LA Food Fest has still not only succeeded, but contributed to LA’s culinary history, shining the spotlight on many chefs, restaurants, and vendors – including notable talents like Ludo Lefebvre, whose fried chicken truck Dawson says first featured at the LA Food Fest.
Initially, the vendors were curated specially; however, as the LA Food Fest grew, they received hundreds of requests a year. The current online application, which requires a (reimbursable) $20 fee, was implemented to verify the seriousness of applicants. The open call and blind tasting aspect was added, too, through which they have been discovering new and talented culinaries to add to their roster.
One of the most notable features of the LA Food Fest is its commitment to being a zero-waste food event since 2016. Zero waste, to Dawson and the LA Food Fest, doesn’t just apply to using more eco-friendly plates, cutlery, and serving-ware – though much consideration has been put into minimizing material waste and using recyclable materials – it also applies to the food itself. While in the first year or two there wasn’t any leftover food, there was eventually a year in which vendors were left with extra food after the event, which they subsequently discarded. This food waste bothered Dawson deeply, and she set out to devise ways to ensure no food from the event ended up in the trash again. The LA Food Fest has worked with St Vincent Meals on Wheels and LA Kitchen to learn how to reclaim and deliver the unused food, arranging and planning food delivery after the event with the chefs and event participants. They’ve had help from volunteers from religious organizations and schools to reclaim the food waste, either by delivering it to local soup kitchens or planting edible gardens. Fittingly, this year, a portion of all the proceeds from this year’s LA Food Fest will be going to Food Forward, an organization fighting hunger and preventing food waste by rescuing fresh surplus produce and supplying this produce to people in need.
So don’t miss out on your chance to attend this extraordinary event – the LA Food Fest is concluding its run on its tenth anniversary! Dawson and her team now curates over 40 events, such as the Makers Market in Old Town Pasadena, which you can view here.
The Tenth Annual LA Food Fest
Santa Anita Park
285 Huntington Drive
Arcadia, CA 91007
Saturday, July 29