OpenTable is proud to sponsor the annual New York City Wine & Food Festival (NYCWFF) next month, benefitting two organizations dedicated to fighting hunger in the U.S., No Kid Hungry and the Food Bank for New York City. With more than 100 events over three days, the festival has raised $8.5 million for charity since it launched in 2008, and we’re thrilled to be a part of the mission.
To gear up for the event, we sat down for a roundtable interview with three people who are driving the cause forward: Lee Brian Schrager, Founder and Director of NYCWFF; Clay Dunn, Senior Director of Brand for No Kid Hungry; and Margarette Purvis, President and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City.
Here, they tell us the history behind NYCWFF and explain how chefs and restaurants have used their influence to raise awareness and inspire action to fight hunger.
Why did each of you become involved with the NYCWFF? How did the event come to have a charitable component and why?
Lee: Although we call it the eighth year of the NYCWFF, it’s really the ninth year. We kind of tested the waters nine years ago with a one-day event called SWEET. We wanted to see if our sponsors would be interested and how our consumers would respond to it, and if we could secure the same level of talent, and we were very successful.
When we were thinking about starting the sister festival to South Beach, I spoke with a lot of people who lived in New York and had a lot of connections, and I asked them what were some of the great charities that we should consider partnering with. I probably met with eight or nine charities. I remember meeting with the Food Bank, and I was so impressed.
It was actually going to be an exclusive event to the Food Bank. We were really in the final stages of negotiating when the Food Network, who has been our partner for many years in South Beach and was already signed on to work with us in New York, made me aware that their charity of choice was Share Our Strength and No Kid Hungry, and what did I think about working with them?
Thankfully, it was an organization that I respected just as much. It’s a partnership that has worked well for everybody for the last nine years now.
Clay: We were so lucky to have had this great partnership with the Food Network that continues today. When the idea of the NYCWFF came up, it was just so obvious to us that we knew we wanted to be a part of what we knew would grow to be the biggest food festival in the country in the greatest city in America.
We so admired what Lee had done in South Beach and saw the potential for it in New York City, and it was just incredibly exciting for us to be involved in that vision and a part of the festival as it’s grown over the years.
Margarette: For the Food Bank in New York City…. when you say, how did we become involved, I can only say God must love us special. [Laughs.] There truly is no opportunity like the NYCWFF. We would not, as a charity, be able to ever afford the kind of access to New Yorkers — the marketing, the touch point — to be able to build this bridge that food provides.
Hunger can obviously be an issue that can be hard to tackle. This event allows us to really just meet in a place of love of food and an admiration for rock star chefs and the art that they produce on a plate. And after all the great fun that you have, you also know that you got to help your most vulnerable neighbors. It’s just a win times a million.
How have chefs and restaurants helped this cause? What kind of results have you seen from NYCWFF and Dine Out for No Kid Hungry, and the like?
Lee: We would not have the festival today without the support of chefs. What chef doesn’t care about feeding people in the end?
If you look at the Culinary Council that the Food Bank in New York has created, it has some of the most influential chefs in New York City, steered by Mario Batali. And if you look at the people who support Share Our Strength nationwide in their annual event that they do in all the big cities, the chefs are the greatest ambassadors that the festival has.
They are ambassadors, not only because having them on is a seal of endorsement, but they have the opportunity to speak to consumers every night who want to know events that they’re involved in or things that they’re supporting so they can support people who feed them nightly.
Clay: For more than 30 years now Share Our Strength has worked so closely with the culinary community, and we find time and time again that chefs are the most amazing advocates and ambassadors and representatives who can help engage the public in a really interesting way. Sometimes at food festivals, like the NYCWFF, sometimes through larger promotions like our Dine Out for No Kid Hungry that’s happening right now, that OpenTable is supporting. Chefs are the most generous people, giving their time and skills — they’ve been amazing advocates for this cause.
Is there anything else restaurants can do to help fight hunger? Is there anything you see year-round that chefs and restaurants do to help raise awareness?
Margarette: It’s really about ensuring that awareness is also a part of every chef’s menu. There’s no effort that’s too small.
We’ve had chefs that have done things like this particular pie — you buy this pie, the proceeds go to feed hungry people in this neighborhood. I think the most important thing is when a chef is aware and just makes a little bit of room — it doesn’t matter the size of it, it’s on their menu within their space. That is the easiest thing that every chef honestly can do.
Lee mentioned our Culinary Council led by Mario, and one of the things I love about it is that Mario approves every chef that gets onto that Culinary Council. It’s not just about that they’re a great cook. Obviously they’re all great artists. But he always wants to know: What room are they making? Are they really committed to this? Are they really going to do a little bit extra to help us solve this thing called hunger?
What role do chefs play overall in raising awareness about hunger? What are some of the biggest successes that you’ve seen by getting them involved?
Margarette: We certainly have seen lots of great results, but in particular it’s important that everyone understands that the NYCWFF has raised $8.5 million to help fight hunger. That is an unbelievable amount of real resources that we depend on to feed people. This is not going toward anything besides real meals that families need.
Obviously we have other one-off projects, but $8.5 million being infused into poverty programming is nothing to sneeze at. It really is a tremendous lift. And we like to repeat the number so that people understand that when you buy tickets to these events, when you join us, when you attend, you are doing a great thing. It really does come back in wonderful dividends for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.
Clay: We see chefs being some of the most powerful advocates at both the national and the local level when we’re advocating on behalf of those who don’t have enough food.
We’re sending chefs to state houses to give testimony in front of committees and to be with us on Capitol Hill, urging their representatives to take action on issues that help more people get food. As we see the growth of things like the festival and the sort of rock star status of chefs growing, we see them having an even more powerful voice, not only through giving their time at an event like the NYCWFF, but being amazing advocates on their own.
How do you engage attendees with the mission to end hunger as they enjoy the festivities at NYCWFF?
Lee: We always think we do such a great job of messaging and promoting our charity partners. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is when you speak to people sometimes, or even when you speak to chefs all these years later, who say, we didn’t know there was a charity component.
Letting people know that it’s a charity and, more importantly, getting the message out there that we are feeding people, is the most important message for us. As great as the funds are, for me one of the most important things is the awareness that it creates.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to an event and people are interested; I give out my card and people contact me about wanting to work at a food bank, wanting to support No Kid Hungry or get involved in some of their events. The dollars are great, but it’s the awareness that you can’t put a price on.
Margarette: We see that end up right here at our doorstep. The awareness that we build really does turn into action and support from a lot of people who didn’t know.
There’s not really a lot of places you can turn at the festival and not know that this is benefitting charity. But the ones who connect — boy is it powerful. They realize, I can go beyond this wonderful experience to hands-on experiences in my neighborhood. I can find a soup kitchen in my area. As Clay was saying, I can lend my voice to advocacy. I can say something that matters to assist my neighbors. It just opens it up for us to do so many other things with New Yorkers.
Clay: We find it such an amazing opportunity at the NYCWFF to engage the attendees in conversations about our work and igniting them to take action.
Last year at the festival we were in the midst of a lengthy advocacy campaign to help more New York City kids get breakfast. We used space at the festival to talk about that, to generate letters to elected officials in New York. People were saying that this is an issue that was important to them and they wanted to see success. They were happy to see at the beginning of this year that we were successful in that campaign, and I think the work that we did at NYCWFF was a big part of that.
This fall, more kids going back to school are going to have access to breakfast than ever before, which is a huge win for kids in New York and really made possible by the kinds of hands on and face-to-face conversations that we’re having with people at the festival.
Lee: And not only does it affect the consumers who are purchasing our tickets and the chefs who are supporting both these great organizations — so many of our sponsors are people who began by supporting the festival or vice versa, began by being involved in the Food Bank. Same thing with No Kid Hungry.
People who want to support an organization that feeds people, who want to reach chefs, that want to raise money for feeding the hungry, want to be involved in our festivals and want to support these two great organizations.
What are your expectations for the festival this year?
Lee: Our goal is to raise the most amount of money, but as importantly, my goal is to spend the least amount of money in doing so. It’s very expensive to do business in New York City, as everybody knows. And then you add in a partner like a union, which taps into the money that we give to the Food Bank and to No Kid Hungry — it’s incredibly disappointing. My goal is to spend as little, make as much, and get more awareness for our charity partners than ever.
Margarette: Amen to that, Lee! We certainly want people to buy tickets, but if you can’t buy a ticket, then come and volunteer. Work hard; sign up for multiple days.
What Lee was saying is totally true: It is expensive to run this. Having a strong base of dedicated volunteers matters so much. People can come to our website FoodBankNYC.org to sign up to volunteer.
How do No Kid Hungry and the Food Bank use this money? What kind of impact does it have?
Margarette: Food Bank does not do this work alone. Every day we have anywhere from 18 to 24 trucks on the road delivering food to a network of 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries in the city. Most of these programs are run by volunteers or very low-paid employees.
We’re able to give them foods that are free. It allows us to give them grants. Just last year alone this particular gift from the NYCWFF was able to help us provide more than 2.5 million meals. It is a lift that I could never describe.
We have a Can Do Gala that everyone knows about, and it’s something that we’re very proud of. But we have no ability to do what this festival is able to do for us in just infusing our city-wide network with vital resources that your typical soup kitchen or food pantry in a poor neighborhood would never have access to.
Also, it allows us to be able to save so much money. Because of the festival we’re able to divert other funds to even more food and not having to put it towards marketing, because we’re able to count this as a benefit of this wonderful partnership.
Clay: The festival provides vital funds that help us to connect kids to breakfast and after-school meals and summer meal programs and to continue our work to help families learn skills to shop and cook healthy on a budget. The money that we raise through the festival is so important in furthering this work, both in New York and across the country. We’re so grateful to be a part of it.
Lee: If you can’t buy a ticket, volunteer. If you can’t volunteer, make a donation. Our goal is to raise the most amount of money, spend the least, and create awareness for the charities. That’s why we’re doing this.
Photo Credits: Larry Busacca, Astrid Stawiarz, Bryan Bedder, and Neilson Barnard.