The Folks Behind the Richmond Folk Feast

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Folk Feast fever is hard to contain. We are still reeling from last week’s record-breaking ticket sale, which completely sold out within 12 hours.

The Feast, in case you haven’t been, is a delectable event featuring a proverbial smorgasbord of the best Richmond’s acclaimed food scene has to offer. Guests can sample an assortment of signature dishes, lovingly prepared by all-star chefs, from a menu as diverse as the Richmond Folk Festival itself.

Which is why the Feast came together in the first place. We’re so grateful to tastemakers Thomas Arrington and Kira Siddall for coming to us with their heartfelt vision to celebrate Richmond’s dynamic restaurant community as a way to help keep the Richmond Folk Festival free to the public.

 Thomas Arrington and Kira Siddall

Thomas Arrington and Kira Siddall

So what is it about the Folk Feast that keeps drawing crowds year after year? We sat down with the duo to get their take on why, in its sixth year, this delicious event is still the hottest ticket in town.

You have been champions of Richmond’s local food scene for many years. What is your connection to the restaurant community and why is it important to you?

KIRA: I’m a born and raised Richmond girl who fell in love with the food scene and all of its potential for moving RVA forward. I befriended and supported everyone because not only was the food outstanding, the friendship fulfilling, but ultimately I want every place I love to succeed. Richmond is better with a top-notch food scene.

THOMAS:  I have been fortunate enough to see two separate sides of the local food scene. First, cooking in a few great spots in the city. Next, through working with Performance Food Group originally in sales and now in business development.

What was the “big idea” behind the initial Folk Feast? What prompted you to think of it in the first place?

KIRA: Thomas had this incredible idea to bring local food to the Folk Festival, to really highlight the things that are and were happening in this city from a culinary perspective to a huge audience. I saw an incredible way to raise money for an event I deeply care about while shining a spotlight on the culinary stars in Richmond.

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THOMAS:  Over the course of two roads trips to Atlanta & Charleston, a few chef friends and I discussed what a food-centric event would look like in Richmond. The ‘idea’ conversation quickly evolved into what this theoretical event would not be, it would not be difficult for chefs to participate, the restaurants would not make a capital expense in the event, it would not be a judged competition.  We knew that it would be under the upper Tredegar tent on site of the Folk Festival – the style and feel of the event came to be organically.

Why did you think it would be a good fit for the Richmond Folk Festival? Take us back to when you first pitched the idea to Venture Richmond. How did you pitch the idea? What was their reaction?

KIRA: When we all sat down to talk about the idea the first time, Thomas had pulled together a range of chefs and owners to brainstorm with Venture Richmond about what could be. It started as a concept to have a Richmond dining area at the actual Folk Festival. We quickly learned that to cook at the Festival you are cooking on a scale that is mind-blowing, a huge shout out to all of the vendors who are at there because they are feeding a mind-boggling number of people. Throughout the conversation, we changed courses and realized that there was the opportunity to do an event earlier in the week because the tents go up the weekend before the festival and to change the approach to a fundraiser.

THOMAS: I am smart enough to know that I need a team of smarter people around me. I approached Kira to bring her incredible communication skills to the table. When we launched this event, nothing else like it was happening. Venture Richmond was our first stop. VR is a fantastic nonprofit that champions all things about the City of Richmond. Stephen Lecky and Lisa Sims were brought in for a brainstorming session about what an annual event would look like. The idea was floated to use one of the large tents set up for the Folk Festival, by doing so, we would have the opportunity to raise money to help keep admission to the festival free to the public.

How is the Folk Feast different from other food-centric events in Richmond? What do you love most about the event?

 Craig Perkinson/Southbound

Craig Perkinson/Southbound

KIRA: The setting is pretty incredible. Situated on historic Upper Tredegar, you can take in amazing views of the beautiful James River, the train bridge, and the Virginia War Memorial. It’s the only food-centric event in town where the food is the star but the setting, music and drink make the party perfect.  It’s truly the perfect combination for a great party.

THOMAS:  The chefs are our focus. It is mission critical for this event to be easy for the restaurants. We have created a low key / highly interactive atmosphere that connects chefs to the guests. Though this is ticketed, we never wanted this to be a transactional event – charging for each dish. It was important to create an event where the guest is free to roam and make it their own experience. The Folk Feast is not a competition, it is a celebration of the incredible culinary talent as well as the outstanding community that night in and night out supports these small businesses.

What is required of the chefs who participate in the event? How can interested restaurants get involved?

KIRA: It’s a serious but very fun one-day commitment. From onsite setup to breakdown is about 7 hours. If restaurants want to get involved, they can reach out to me or Stephen Lecky. I start by asking our past participants to commit in May/June, after we fill those spots, we have on average 10 spots to fill. I send out email asks and try to fill the remaining spots with a variety of new restaurants.

THOMAS: We ask that each participating chef/restaurant make a dish of a few bites – something that is on brand with their restaurant. It could be menu mainstay or something that was created specifically for the night. Make enough to cover the ticketed guests. We take care of everything else. If someone is interested in participating, reach out to Stephen Lecky at Venture Richmond.

Tell us more about the what goes into putting on the event year after year. Are there any unsung heroes who deserve a shout out?

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KIRA: Hours of email. It’s the details that get you when you put together an event like this and part of making it a seamless day for the chefs, is the preparation that goes into it. We start sending emails out asking chefs to participate in May and June and try to have the whole lineup secured by the time tickets go on sale in July.

The setting is also critical to the success of this event and I don’t think we would be where we are without the incredible support of Perkins Morgan and Morgan Montgomery from Paisley and Jade. Those ladies have an incredible product (seriously, check out their vintage furniture rentals) and vision, they really pull together the furniture details that make the Folk Feast look and feel like the best party in town.

THOMAS:  Each year we have been very pleased with the outcome of the Folk Feast.  That being said we have listened to the feedback from chefs, guests, and our volunteers to help refine our model for the event.  Heroes, yes — two groups stand out in my mind; the chefs that bring their "A" game each year & the guests that continue to sell this event out year after year. Without those two elements fully engaged — we are not where we are today.

What was it like to put on the very first Folk Feast? What surprised you? Did anything go wrong? What did you learn?

KIRA: Forkgate. We went through THOUSANDS of forks the first year and ran out, it never dawned on us that people would throw out their fork after each plate. I had to send my dad (a saint) to the store to go get more during the event. The orange fork was a stroke of genius and now people know to hang on to it for the rest of the night. Since then we have learned and every year we step up the effort to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

THOMAS:  The first Folk Feast was fantastic – we ran out of forks – we ripped through a few thousand in the first 45 minutes. We needed to figure out a better solution, which is why each guest receives their single, iconic fork.

How do you think the Folk Feast has changed since its debut?

KIRA: It’s bigger but still feels like the intimate party we envisioned.

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THOMAS:  The mission and goal of the event have not changed since the launch.  We knew we needed to start small — we kept the event tight for the first two years. Slowly we have been able to increase capacity with participants and guests. We have reconfigured the layout to create multiple seating options by beginning to think outside of the tent — utilizing the peripheral areas on the outskirts of our huge tent.

Do you have a favorite memory from a past Feast? Which year was it and what happened?

KIRA: This year feels incredibly special, this is the first year we sold out in one day. Usually, it takes a few weeks for tickets to sell out but we knocked it out in 12 hours this year…I found myself texting all of my friends to make sure they got tickets.

THOMAS:  When the first Folk Feast sold out — we knew we were on to something good.

What are you most excited about for this year’s Folk Feast?

KIRA: I love hearing the total amount of money raised each year. This is a serious labor of love and seeing that tent filled with the people who have raised over $40,000 to keep the Folk Festival free makes my night.

THOMAS:  I’m a food guy! I can’t wait to see where the chefs take the menu this year!