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Monday, August 10, 2009

Nihonmachi Street Fair 2009 Recap (It's Not Good)

The 36th annual Nihonmachi Street Fair in San Francisco's Japantown went well, and thankfully, no grouchy condo developers and tenant board presidents going after the event this round.

There was a decent crowd this year, but if you try to compare Cherry Blossom to Nihonmachi, Cherry Blossom gets more people than Nihonmachi. If you think about how these events work, Cherry Blossom is way more organized and has better control than Nihonmachi; yet, the history of the Nihonmachi Street Fair is basically the idea of people simply coming together to have fun, and Cherry Blossom was made for the local businesses to attract more customers.

I'm going to be blunt, Nihonmachi Street Fair has been failing in terms of organizing (management)
. I've been volunteering with a non-profit organization who makes and sells the famous "Teriburgers" and many of our volunteers can see how much we and other food booths were suffering. Here's a short list:
  1. Poor location, they sent all the food booths to Webster street and part of Post Street (west of Webster).
  2. No entertainment stage, not even a radio station sponsor playing music.
  3. Only six non-profit organizations were selling food, everyone else was for-profit. This violated the "spirit" of the event.
  4. Many food booths saw a severe lack of customers due to the bad location and entertainment factors.
  5. Lack of advertising.
This really didn't go well for everyone. While I know the food booths made some kind of a profit, the Street Fair committee did a terrible job this year.

Everybody knows that music and food comes together. Cherry Blossom knows that live bands brings out the crowds and many people grab food and drinks before and after each set. NSF has done it before, but a former M.C. of the program warned everyone a couple of years ago that the stage may not return for this particular event, and he was right. So by killing the music and combining the "bad" location since the other stage was at the Peace Plaza, everyone got screwed.

I've heard comments from the public that "I didn't see your booth" because it looked like the main focus of NSF is the arts and crafts vendors. Everyone stuck around there so much that I had to go up there and announce all the good food and beverages supporting the non-profits of the Japantown community.

And another thing, how about the lack of non-profit organizations selling food? I saw more for-profit food booths than ever before in the history of the festival. People familiar with the history of the Nihonmachi Street Fair knows that it was created for the community to come together, have fun, and socialize. Everyone knew the food sold at the annual event was to help out the community non-profit organizations that helps seniors, youth, legal services, churches, and sports leagues, yet the committee's poor job to attract these organizations to set-up and cook good food has turned this event into a complete disaster. Combine this with the fact that this year, all the food booths were placed in a poor location, and the non-profits will reconsider if they will set-up shop ever again.

Two for-profit vendors selling Vietnamese BBQ? I spit at that decision. The "spirit" of the food booths (even if they are for-profit) is that each booth has a specific monopoly. This means NO COMPETITION. Competition means vendors will lose money; no competition means each booth has one popular staple item that everyone always remembers to come back to. Going back to the Cherry Blossom model, everyone wins because each booth has a monopoly.

A big lesson that should have been learned is the lack of advertising. The more you invest, the bigger the crowds. From what I know of, the only advertising that was published was the local Japanese American newspapers (Nichi Bei Times and Hokubei Mainichi), and a little blurb on SFgate's events page. Cherry Blossom Festival learned a lesson that when the attendance dropped, they invested more into advertising and was able to get back their attendance numbers and it helped all the vendors and attracted better entertainment.

Here's my solution to improving the Nihonmachi Street Fair:
  1. Start talking to community organizations now to get their support.
  2. If you can't afford to build two entertainment stages, compress the festival so the food booths are closer to the stage.
  3. Advertise much more heavily.
  4. Work with the Aloha Festival to make sure that both events don't happen on the same weekend. If successful, you can have on one weekend, and another on the next one, more arts and crafts vendors from Hawaii will stay in the Bay Area for an extra week so they can sell at the other event (save money on a flight back to the islands).
  5. Restrict food vendors to non-profits.
  6. Regulate a monopoly on food items per booth. No competing items.


Greg said...

I think you make some good points. The Cherry Blossom Festival is always a lot of fun. I went to the fair this weekend and was a bit disappointed. Most of those booths were the same crafty booths you'd see at a street fair anywhere in SF, or frankly at any fair anywhere.

One other thing - the food booths at these things (the for profit ones) are becoming less and less of a value. 9 dollars for a kielbasa is too high!

I also agree that pushing the food booths onto Webster was a mistake. It was easy to miss them.

maybe one idea would have been to time the event to coincide with that new j-pop center that's opening next week instead? I know it's hindsight but I'd imagine that would be drawing a lot of people, and closing off the street to have that AND the fair might have been nice at getting more people to help out the nonprofit food booths, etc.

Anonymous said...

The Aloha Festival was last weekend (August 1-2). I think you have that festival confused with the Filipino Pistahan Festival, which was this weekend (August 8-9) in Yerba Buena Gardens. I am Japanese and my wife is Filipino, but we could only attend one festival this last weekend so we chose Pistahan this year.

Akit said...

I totally forgot about the Pisthan festival. It would have been nice if all three festival organizers met together to work out an evened-out calendar.

I was trying to say that there has always been a consistent problem of having Aloha and NSF on the same weekend, but both events got lucky this year.

KT said...

I agree that the placement of the food and music stage were bad and the advertising was not good. Even on the NSF website I was unable to find the exact hours of the festival (the jpeg of the flyer was too small to read all the print!). I helped out with Children's World last year and I was surprised that I didn't receive any sort of correspondence from them this year to announce the festival or encourage me to publicize it within my networks...but I also know that it takes a LOT of work to pull off the festival even when it's mediocre (and on top of that it's disappointing to have worked for a so-so event). I think that's exactly why the food booths aren't limited just to nonprofits -- the organizers can't find enough of them and settle for just having some of food booths be nonprofs. A lot of the organizations don't have the manpower or resources to get it together and do a food booth. Permitting and health codes are not the easiest things to deal with, especially when you're not already in the business of selling food. From what I understand Kimochi has access to the kitchens at JCCCNC, so it's a little easier. I also only had one day to partake in festivals that weekend, and thus had to miss Pistahan. There are only so many weekends in August though...sigh. I still had a good time walking around in the sun and enjoying the music and teriburgers and taiyaki from May's (inside the mall) though.