Manchester, TN: For Vendors, Bonnaroo Festival is a Business Bonanza

New at Bonnaroo this year is the Food Truck Oasis. Music fans line up to get food out of a taco truck at the festival in Manchester. / Shelley Mays / The Tennessean

By Bobby Allyn | The Tennessean

New at Bonnaroo this year is the Food Truck Oasis. Music fans line up to get food out of a taco truck at the festival in Manchester. / Shelley Mays / The Tennessean

MANCHESTER — Most days, brothers Edwin and Henry Wong swarm the streets of Knoxville in their chili and chips food truck in search of hungry crowds.

But this weekend, the masses will come to them. As is true for hundreds of concession vendors, an invitation to Bonnaroo is an undeniable business offer.

“It means sheer volume,” Henry Wong says. “They’re hot, carefree and hungry. It’s great for us.”

Petros Chili and Chips Knoxville

The Wongs quit their day jobs earlier this year to launch the first-ever food truck franchise for Knoxville-based chain Petro’s Chilli and Chips.

Arrayed with a small flock of other food trucks next to a 40-foot waterslide on the west end of the sprawling farmland where some 80,000 daily festival-goers are partying, the Wong brothers are part of Bonnaroo’s newest addition: tapping into big-city food fads.

In its 10th season, Bonnaroo, which runs through Sunday, will feature 175 performers on 12 stages. Most festival-goers endured the crushing heat, seeking respite in the shade or around water fountains when not packed together watching round-the-clock live music.

The food market, meanwhile, adds some new flavor.

“We wanted something different this year,” said Tiffany Dorman, food curator for Superfly Presents, which organizes Bonnaroo. “Food trucks are a sign of the financial times, and the fest wants to evolve as the food world evolves.”

Bonnaroo has a selective year-long process in choosing food vendors. Hundreds from around the country apply and the fest takes around 70, according to Chris Crowell, who has been picking the fest’s food vendors since Bonnaroo’s start a decade ago.

“We have a very high return rate, which makes the process competitive,” Crowell said. “But we’ve grown every year since we started.”

She continued, “This year we really worked hard on being as local and sustainable as we could. We know there’s a demand for that.”

According to Crowell, about a quarter of the fest’s vendors are from Tennessee, more than in years past.

LeeAnn Cherry is among them.

Cherry’s Bear Creek Farm raises organic Angus beef near Leiper’s Fork. The family-run farm returned to Bonnaroo after having success last year. Cherry said they’re ready to make up to 4,000 burgers through Sunday.

“Coming here helps us as a family,” she said. “At the end of the day it feels like, ‘Oh man, what a ride.’ But how could we turn down the opportunity to showcase what we do 15 to 20 hours a day?”

Economic surge

Bonnaroo’s contribution to Coffee County’s economy is significant. A 2005 Middle Tennessee State University paper estimated that the total local economic impact at that time exceeded $18 million over the fest’s run.

Economist David Penn, one of the paper’s authors, said when adjusted for inflation, the fest’s economic impact will be around $20 million. Bonnaroo spokesman Ken Weinstein said total local economic impact will be around $24 million.

However large the impact, there is no disputing that Bonnaroo provides a major boost.

“When we come to town, we create a Bonnaroo city,” event planner Crowell said.

Indeed, Manchester becomes the seventh most populous city in the state during the fest.

No in-your-face branding

Chad Issaq, one of the top marketing executives for SuperFly Presents, the New York entertainment agency that co-created Bonnaroo, said organizers have always taken pains to keep the fest’s corporate volume low — not giving stages marquee brand names, for instance.

He insists that maintaining a subtler corporate presence has gained importance as the fest grows older.

“We had a realization early on that we’re dealing with a very savvy consumer. The promotions can’t be aggressive. This generation is already over-messaged to,” Issaq said.

Bonnaroo’s corporate branding, he said, is “woven into the fest experience.”

While the sponsors didn’t erect splashy billboards, the brands made efforts to court their audience nonetheless.

Wheat Thins, one of the weekend’s biggest brand names, lured in crowds with an air-conditioned room, free samples and a way to share personalized Wheat Thins music videos to Facebook friends.

Gariner Fructis, another major fest sponsor, offered hair-washing salons. As festival-goers had their hair rinsed, TV screens hung from above offered a reminder of which brand of shampoo was being massaged into scalps.

Bonnaroo veteran

Despite the fest updating its food vendors, most people engaged in commerce at the 500-acre pasture are Bonnaroo stalwarts like Beverly Hills, 64, of Canton, Texas.

Couched between a hula-hoop shop and a hammock lounge, Hills sells cowboy hats, floppy sun hats and fedoras, as she has the past nine years here.

She got her start as a traveling merchant by selling Beanie Babies at conventions. Now, she’s on the music festival circuit year-round, hawking assorted headgear.

Her highest-end hats are part of a Bret Michaels series. Her husband, Don Bird, makes custom hats for the rock singer/actor. They sell to the public for around $100.

“This is not a job to me. It’s my passion,” Hills said. “All of this. It’s a high for me.”