A new celebration of Ottawa’s food and wine scene is popping into the Shaw Centre this year, with organizers hoping to learn lessons from previous takes on the popular festival.
The Crave – Food & Wine Festival will pair fine wines with creations from Ottawa chefs at the downtown convention centre over the first weekend of April. DNA Live, the local organization that also runs events such as electronic dance music festival Escapade, uncorked the news Tuesday.
Crave has no connection to the original Ottawa Food and Wine Festival, a long-running event that brought together food and alcohol vendors for the better part of the last decade.
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The original food and wine festival, which shifted away from the downtown Shaw Centre to the EY Centre near the airport in 2016, ran into a series of hiccups late in its run, including complaints of rowdy behaviour from attendees. The event has not operated the past two years and fell into litigation with the convention centre over unpaid bills; a Superior Court of Ontario judge ordered the festival to pay up in 2018.
Ali Shafaee, executive director of DNA Live, said Tuesday that he’s been working to bring a new wine and food event to Ottawa ever since the original iteration – where he’d acted as both a vendor and an attendee – started to fold.
Shafaee, one of last year’s Forty Under 40 recipients, told OBJ he’d been working with the Shaw Centre for the past year to plan a new festival. While he noted similar “boutique” events can run well in areas of the city such as Orléans and Kanata, securing the downtown location – close to the high-end restaurants Crave is hoping to attract – was pivotal to the new formula.
“It wouldn’t have made sense for us to bring this concept to life if we weren’t at the Shaw Centre,” Shafaee said.
The exhibitors were the next piece to lock down. Shafaee said he heard from previous vendors of the Ottawa Food and Wine Festival that they were losing money in staffing costs for the weekend-long event, where their gourmet offerings would be undercut by $2 “hot dogs on a stick.”
He also heard there was a lack of brand association at the old event, as attendees would float from sample to sample without any lasting impressions.
To remedy this, Crave will feature themed “aisles” with experiences that go beyond consumption. Shafaee offers the example of the France corridor, which will have a bistro-style feel with classic black-and-white films projected nearby. The belief is that someone enjoying a glass of French vino surrounded by the unique sights and sounds will develop a sensory memory of the vendors that lasts past the next sip.
The festival will also go beyond the Shaw Centre with “Crave week” leading up to the event itself. This will see participating restaurants welcome patrons into their kitchens or distilleries for exclusive tastings and tours.
“That’s a good way for restaurants to say, ‘Hey, we’re not only participating in the show, but we’re able to showcase our brands to foodies and people in the city,’” Shafaee said.
With experience managing crowds at outdoor festivals and other events where alcohol plays a factor, Shafaee said the team will be using its best practices to limit disruptive behaviour. For example, the age limit on attendees will be 21-and-above.
“The experience is safe, it’s not overconsumption. For lack of a better term, it’s not a gong show,” Shafaee said.
The Crave – Food & Wine Festival will run April 4-5 at the Shaw Centre. Tickets go on sale Feb. 18. Organizers expect up to 10,000 attendees for the first year, with between 60 and 100 exhibitors on-site.