Every eatery worth its salt is serving up special spreads to push plates and profits. The cause can be culture or cricket, ritual or rage
Catch the flavours of the moment, put them together, mix and stir them right, prepare and package them bright, serve it up and watch it sell'
This is not the magic formula of Lagaan ' with its patriotism-cricket combo ' but of food destinations here, there and everywhere. From religious to righteous, cultural to cricketing, anything goes, any time.
Just stir up a theme, sift through the repertoire to fix the menu (that either suits the occasion or simply needs to be pushed), cook up a name to match, garnish it with a sprinkling of celebrities, serve generous scoops of invitations to loyal customers, feed it to the publicity mill'
' And voila, you have a lip-smacking recipe for a food festival. One that could bail out your restaurant if it's down in the dumps, or send it soaring if it's already cruising.
With the restaurantscape dotted with eateries galore and eating out the biggest incentive for stepping out of home, food festivals are the latest culinary craze.
When it comes to food festivals, the star hotels ' The Park, Taj Bengal, The Oberoi Grand, ITC Sonar Bangla Sheraton and Towers, Hyatt Regency, Peerless Inn and The Kenilworth ' lead the numbers game. Restaurants like Mainland China, Oh! Calcutta, Trincas, Tamarind, Marco Polo' are not far behind.
One festival every two months seems the right recipe with the standalone eateries, while the star hotels dish out at least one every month at each food stop. So, for a hotel with three to four outlets, every week could be a festival week.
There can be three kinds of excuses ' some call it the cause ' to host a food festival. Celebrating a religious or cultural festival and special days, promotions of particular cuisine or seasonal food items, and launch of a new menu.
The list of occasions is as varied as it can get, from the basic to the bizarre (see box). 'Apart from the obvious occasions like Poila Baisakh, New Year, Pujas and Christmas, we host innovative festivals like Barshar Bahar (celebrating the monsoons), Boumashtami (an answer to Jamai Shashti) or even an Ode to Elvis,' smiles Shashi Puri, co-owner of Trincas.
Festival food fare includes all-time favourites like kebab, biryani, hilsa and noodles, popular cuisine like Hyderabadi, Rajasthani, south Indian and Thai, off-beat variety like Sushi, Turkish, Swiss and Greek.
Whatever the occasion, the idea is to promote the platter. So if Tamarind keeps cashing in on the local festivals of the southern states, Mainland China makes a big thing of festivals in the Chinese calendar.
And others aren't cramped by the calendar. 'We don't need specific occasions to host a food festival. We organise a promotion from time to time to showcase the culinary strengths of our hotel chain to Calcuttans. But yes, we do try to include seasonal elements in the scheme of our festivals,' says Ranvir Bhandari, general manager, ITC Sonar Bangla.
Food festivals are often promotions of certain sections of the menu. These can either be new additions that require a kick-start or slow-moving items that need a move on.
'Often, a particular section of the menu does not move as fast as the others. In order to bring them into the limelight, a food festival becomes mandatory,' admits Shafiul Ishaque, co-owner, Tamarind. 'Also, since ours is a rare restaurant serving non-vegetarian south Indian food, we need to create demand for the cuisine; food festivals help do just that.'
The planning process starts at the beginning of every financial year, when the entire annual calendar of food festivals is chalked out. This takes into account the obvious occasions and plugs the cuisine-based promotions in the lull periods.
'The plan of action is decided well in advance and an activity chart drawn up. For simple promotions, like maybe a pasta festival, preparations begin a month in advance, while for the special ones three to four months are needed,' says George K. George, executive chef, The Oberoi Grand.
First step, time it right. 'The festival should not clash with any other important event in the city,' warns Ishaque.
A lot of research goes into deciding the menu. 'The decision is taken after consultations with the sales, food and beverages, and the public relations departments,' says Anirban Simlai, food and beverages manager, The Park.
The aim is to keep it as close to the authentic as possible. 'Before our Shanghai Street Food Festival, I went to Shanghai to research the cuisine,' says chef Rajesh Dubey of Mainland China.
Research apart, importing speciality chefs is more than a fad now. 'We generally get chefs from other Oberoi hotels, or even from other hotels. A guest chef offers his own distinctive touch and hence our regulars get to enjoy more variety. It's also a learning experience for our kitchen staff,' says George.
Besides adding an aura of authenticity, a guest chef or a celebrity chef helps create a buzz around the festival, points out Simlai.
The menu, once decided, goes through several internal tasting sessions before making its way from the kitchen to the table.
And then begins the publicity blitz.
The impact of such festivals, according to the food trade, is 'tremendous' and the effects are far more far-reaching than footfall highs and sales spurts.
The immediate gains are quite dramatic, though. Plates and proceeds go up by 'at least 15 per cent and as much as 40 per cent', depending on the occasion, the publicity and the awareness generated during those few days. Most diners go for the festival menu while it is on the table, and the effect lingers for days and weeks.
'A food festival serves quite a few purposes. Firstly, it creates awareness about a restaurant and the kind of cuisine it serves. Secondly, and most importantly, it results in increased footfall and sales during that period. And thirdly, it's the best time to get feedback from guests that helps in retaining popular items on the menu and doing away with the ones with a lukewarm response,' says Simlai.
Chef Dubey of Mainland China adds: 'Food festivals have a huge impact ' they help draw attention of people as well as the media towards the restaurant. The response at all our festivals is overwhelming and this gives us the chance to showcase our culinary specialities to a bigger crowd. So, they help in creating new clientele.'
A win-win situation for kitchen and consumer alike, eating out could mean flitting from one food festival to the next, for some time to come.