In 2009, Coolhaus took flight at Coachella, the renowned music and arts festival that brings nearly 200,000 people to the California desert for two weekends each spring. For Coolhaus cofounders Natasha Case and Freya Estreller, launching their ice cream sandwich–peddling concept at Coachella was neither a happy accident nor a stroke of coincidence. Strategic and calculated, the decision represented Case and Estreller’s ambitious bet on their concept and its potential to become an energized, Millennial-driven lifestyle brand.
“We chose Coachella because of its large, captive audience and because it’s a cultural experience in a young, hip environment,” Case says. “The plan at the time was to get in front of as many people as possible and put money in the bank.”
It proved a winning bet. Seven years after its Coachella debut, Coolhaus claims 10 trucks scattered among Los Angeles, New York City, and Dallas; two brick-and-mortar L.A. area outlets; and retail product in more than 4,000 stores across the U.S. The brand’s rise can be attributed to a number of factors, Case acknowledges, but the undeniable push that appearances at Coachella and other trendy, large-scale music celebrations—including New York City’s Governors Ball Music Festival and the Austin City Limits Music Festival—have provided the California-based brand cannot be overlooked.
“These festivals have allowed us to hit critical mass and to see as many potential customers as possible, a number of whom are perfectly aware of their own image and eager to look cool with what they’re eating,” Case says.
For upstart concepts like Coolhaus, some of the nation’s premier music festivals—Austin City Limits, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra, Sweetlife, and Bonnaroo, to name just a few of the scene’s powerhouse events—present a compelling opportunity to introduce their quick-service brands to the masses, particularly the connected Millennial crowd. These festivals also help concepts deepen inroads with fans, ride the cool factor these heralded events exude, and broaden their appeal from a brand that dishes out eats to one that exists as part of a larger lifestyle movement.
“We’re trying to be bigger than just ice cream,” Case says. “We’re about a culture, and when you have that, you can do anything with it. You can become a true lifestyle brand, not just someone who provides a delicious product.”
Coolhaus, for instance, has an upcoming cookie line, and Case has even contemplated Coolhaus jewelry.
“Ice cream is our vehicle, but we’re big-picture thinkers,” she says. “When you’re viewed as a lifestyle brand—when you’ve situated yourself inside a culture—it’s like a magic wand to give different things a shot, and that’s powerful creative license.”
In April 2015, 800 Degrees, the 12-unit Neapolitan pizza chain headquartered in L.A., made its first appearance at Coachella, an opportunity 800 Degrees founder Anthony Carron savored.
“Coachella gave us access to a young, hip, and plugged-in demographic,” he says. “For our brand, being at Coachella was about doing something authentic and original.”
Indeed, being present and serving up eats in an energized festival setting provides an important shot of street cred to emerging quick-service concepts. Just look at Torchy’s Tacos, the 10-year-old, Texas-based concept known for its flavorful tacos with quirky names like the Trailer Park and Dirty Sanchez. Torchy’s has participated in Austin City Limits—the Texas capital city’s renowned music festival—for the last six years. Torchy’s marketing director Brittany Platt says appearing at the popular festival drives the taco chain’s local standing, especially since festival organizers are stringent about the food vendors they admit into their prized event. “It’s almost like an Austin VIP club,” Platt says. “Just being there is like a stamp of approval that you’re a brand to be known and celebrated.”
Participating in Austin City Limits has been so rewarding and positive that Torchy’s has doubled down on partaking in similar Millennial-targeted lifestyle events. The eatery’s team has made appearances at the extreme sports–themed X Games in Austin and South by Southwest, Austin’s ever-evolving cultural event that features film, media, music, and more each March. The company continues seeking similar opportunities, excited to connect its brand to more worldly events and take its inventive product out of traditional restaurant spaces.
“When you can get into more dynamic and fun settings, the brand only stands to benefit from that vibe,” Platt says.
Like its fellow Austin quick serve Torchy’s, Chi’lantro BBQ has also participated in Austin City Limits and South by Southwest, as well as the Euphoria Music Festival located at Austin’s Carson Creek Ranch.
“Our customer base is constantly looking for new trends and new things to try, so when we go to these hot festivals, we know we’re getting new customers and people interacting with our brand,” Chi’lantro’s Michael Hong says. He adds that participating in such noteworthy events gives the six-year-old, three-store Chi’lantro concept an opportunity to engage with people living a social lifestyle. “People connect with these artists and then we connect with them, which is so beneficial for us in the long term,” he says. “We become part of their lives, and we can naturally flow into that scene by being present and visible at these cool events.”
At the same time quick-service brands have targeted top festivals, event organizers themselves have become increasingly interested in food. Intent on creating a true, all-encompassing cultural festival that excites with music and other arts, many event organizers have prioritized food and, in particular, restaurant concepts employing an inventive culinary spirit and lively brand image.
Take the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, a fest developed by the full-service Hangout restaurant as a remedy to the beach area’s seasonal business. Over three days in May, some 40,000 people fill Gulf Shores for the lively festival that features 2016 headliners like Lenny Kravitz, Florence + The Machine, and Panic! At the Disco. The seven-year-old festival creates an active foodservice scene with pop-up restaurants lining the beaches of Gulf Shores, and food has become a critical part of providing a dynamic festival experience that boosts the event’s overall appeal.
“Food and beverage has to be able to rise up, take care of everyone, and meet expectations,” says Ephraim Kadish, executive chef of the Hangout Music Festival. “It’s part of making the festival complete, and to be a great festival, you need to compete on the food level as well.”
Like many other festival organizers, Kadish and his Hangout cohorts are selective about their foodservice vendors. They demand a certain level of quality and culinary panache and work to ensure that any vendor has the operational expertise to handle the long days and intense volume. “That’s because Hangout is a three-day marathon,” Kadish says.
Many of the premier music festivals require applications. Once accepted, vendors then pay for a booth or arrange a profit-sharing arrangement—or, at the charge of some festivals, both. Vendors might also encounter challenging operational terms, such as restrictions on the food and beverages they can serve or even the utensils or napkins they can provide customers.
For quick-service brands landing a spot at Hangout or other marquee festivals, the logistics are plenty. Companies often have to provide travel and lodging for a team of personnel, while they might also need to transplant their operation, including equipment ranging from ovens to refrigeration, to fulfill the demands of action-packed days.
“Not many restaurants have access to a captive audience of 40,000 for three full days, but that’s what an event like [the Hangout Music Festival] provides,” Kadish says. “But it’s far from easy.”
The halo effect
For quick-service brands that have attended the nation’s most popular music festivals, the restrictive conditions and financial expense are real, yes, but they take a backseat to the potential marketing and branding benefit.
At Coachella in 2015, Carron says, 800 Degrees made about 1,000 pizzas each day in 100-degree heat. The company made “a few bucks,” Carron acknowledges, but the exposure 800 Degrees earned at the event and the opportunity to affiliate its brand with the top-notch festival proved far more valuable. “It’s a challenging environment at Coachella, but the exposure is amazing, and it helps distinguish our brand,” he says.
In fact, Carron says participation at esteemed events like Coachella provide a brand halo. The event’s positive vibes swirl around 800 Degrees, extending to the minds of attendees and into social media, as well.
“We’re able to show Millennials we’re involved in what they’re involved in, and that drives engagement,” Carron says.
To further deepen connections, 800 Degrees offered a $5 Instagram special at Coachella last year alongside secret menu items and giveaways for social media followers, all of which allowed the chain to strengthen its ties to supporters. The chain also provided next-visit coupons to capture additional followers and fans.
“We want to incentivize people to follow us while at the festival because we know there’s a ripple effect to that effort,” Carron says.
Being at an event like Coachella, he adds, helps establish 800 Degrees’ credibility as a gathering place. That’s important given how he’s tried to establish the restaurants as a third place, investing in a chic, comfortable environment and a robust beer and wine selection to strengthen the concept’s marketplace appeal.
“[Being at Coachella] adds to our cool factor and gives people permission to use us as a gathering spot. It shows we’ve been vetted,” Carron says. “And when people use us as a get-together spot, that’s the lifestyle component for us.”
Case says Coolhaus doesn’t live and die with festival revenue numbers like it once did, a credit to its surging growth over recent years. Events like Coachella and Governors Ball, she says, are about connections and exposure, a reality punctuated by Instagram interaction with the brand that grows during these popular festivals.
“These events are about marketing, and that pays for itself and then some,” Case says. “It’s the right audience for us in massive volume.”
While Torchy’s has secured healthy sales numbers at events like Austin City Limits and South by Southwest, Platt, too, says the immediate dollars pale in comparison to the cultural and marketing benefits the brand gains. These events provide Torchy’s an opportunity to build camaraderie and culture both internally and externally. Staff members celebrate earning a spot on Torchy’s “ACL Casting Call”—a listing of team members who will work the Austin City Limits festival—and the brand embraces the opportunity to mingle with people interested in innovative ideas.
“We try not to take ourselves too seriously, and that attitude fits in well at an event like Austin City Limits, where the people are there to have fun and let loose,” Platt says, adding that Torchy’s even asks its social media fans what signature tacos it should serve at the events.
Sometimes the marketing and branding benefits extend beyond the festival’s grounds to affiliated private events populated with tastemakers and the cultural cognoscenti. And this, some say, is a real boon.
Chi’lantro, for instance, has landed partnerships with brands like Beats by Dre and Spotify, hosting private events at its downtown Austin location and leveraging each brand’s respective popularity to fuel Chi’lantro’s notoriety. In addition to its spot inside the Austin City Limits festival, Chi’lantro also strategically positions its food trucks around Austin’s downtown, which further enhances the brand’s connection to the vibrant festival.
Coolhaus has similarly secured spots at high-profile events. Over the years, the brand has provided ice cream sandwiches and even limited-edition custom product for associated events sponsored by Chevrolet, Guess Jeans, and Patrón Tequila.
“There’s even bigger potential when you can tap into these events,” Case says. “It can definitely enhance brand positioning.”
Beyond the festival, Case says, these affiliated events allow Coolhaus the chance to connect with influencers, media, and artists whose mere presence around Coolhaus’ product can heighten the aspirational value of the brand and its overall stature.
“These people and what they represent, then, become part of our story,” she says, “and when you’re trying to build a lifestyle brand, those connections are so important.”