GastroFest, which takes place on Saturday, March 23 from 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. at Friendship Fountain and The Museum of Science and History (MOSH), remains committed to their goal of giving the First Coast a food-oriented festival. “People come to GastroFest because they love food,” says GastroJax Executive Director Erin Thursby. She helped found the organization which runs Jacksonville’s annual premier food festival— GastroFest—in 2014. “We’re very selective about our restaurants, food trucks, and marketplace vendors. Even if they’re selling t-shirts or candles, they need to be food or beverage oriented.” She points to Hopcloth who is back at the festival this year with their popular craft beer-themed t-shirts.
Tastings are at the heart-and-center of GastroFest. The festival, which is cash-based and encourages fest-goers to go the ATM before they arrive, is pay-as-you-go with most tastes between $1 and $3. This allows affordable options for festival goers to sample the best of what Jacksonville has to offer. GastroFest’s mission is to keep the festival free, open to the public, and inexpensive so everyone can participate.
GastroFest offers a wide array of cuisine for both omnivores and plant-based eaters. Restaurant Orsay, Blue Bamboo and Jax Island Girl/Nomi’s Cheese Bar, all of which have been with the festival since the beginning, return again this year.
Thursby says GastroFest provides restaurants “a good audience with people who are passionate about food, where it comes from, and who want to support local sources and restaurants. We bring it together for them all in one place…This festival is a discovery mission to find what’s good and what’s new.” She notes bringing in Ibex Ethiopian to the festival and how many people were eating Ethiopian cuisine for the first time alongside local favorites such as Black Sheep Restaurant and loved it. “We introduce people who need to know each other.”
This year, they’re excited to introduce Chef Michael Ramsey, formerly of Jacksonville Golf and Country Club, who will be at GastroFest with his new catering and special events company, Well-Oiled Events.
Going Green to Take Out the Trash
It’s a dirty little secret everyone knows, but no one talks about: festivals are trashy events. But GastroFest is taking trash off the menu. Now in its fifth year, GastroFest is making a mark as a more ecologically responsible event. Thursby is passionate about encouraging a community built around going green, and that starts with the festival. “Festivals generate of a lot trash, and if you can reduce it, then you should try,” Thursby says.
And that’s where they’re starting–with the trash. Thursby says that for most festivals, trash is an after-thought, but not for GastroFest. GastroFest owns two Clearstream Recycling Zero-Waste stations, thanks to the help of sponsors Sun-Ray Cinema, WasabiCon®, Cultivate Jax, and HelloFresh. Each station has three bins: Compostable (organics and food waste), Recyclable (single stream – a mix of recyclables), and Trash (landfill waste). Apple Rabbit Compost will provide six additional stations for the event. Volunteers posted at each station will help educate festival goers about how to use them.
The festival also banned plastic water bottles this year. Tiffany Bess, the head of GastroFest’s Green Action Committee and owner of Apple Rabbit Compost, says, “Every year we do a little bit more to reduce the amount of single-use plastic at GastroFest. This year, we’ve come for the plastic bottles. We’ll have boxed water for sale instead, and we’re strongly encouraging folks to bring their own reusable water bottles.”
Bess also hopes that GastroFest can become a role model for other festivals and events, noting that even though GastroFest is not an “eco” event, it’s adopting eco-minded practices. Bess adds, “We have an opportunity to show others you can put on a successful event and have a low carbon footprint. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
The festival is continuing last year’s #GreeningGastroFest campaign. Fest-goers who post pictures of themselves on social media (Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter) acting green at the festival with #GreeningGastroFest will be automatically entered to win gift cards from local eateries, such as Orsay, Foo Dog Curry Traders, Treylor Park, and Murray’s Taco Bodega. Also, Girls Gone Green and Earth Fare have donated swag bags for prizes as well.
What counts as acting green? Biking or taking public transportation to the event, recycling, using reusable water cups, or drinking from an official GastroFest cup. Fest-goers 21 and up who purchase 2019 cups at the event will receive a voucher for a free beer. If you bike to the festival, be sure to use ZenCog’s bike valet. Thursby encourages people to have fun with the hashtag and to get creative with how they can green-up the fest.
One Hot Competition
There are changes to the festival this year. GastroFest is taking a break from hosting its regular Homebrew Competition this year but they are looking forward to hosting more homebrew events in the future.
However, one big addition to the festival really excites Thursby— GastroFest is hosting a Chocolate Covered Datil Pepper Eating Contest with the help of Hot Shot Bakery who is providing the peppers. Thursby anticipates this will be a “hot” event. There is a maximum of 10 participants, and sign up will be first-come, first-serve at the festival’s Information Booth. Participation is free, and there will be prizes for whoever can eat the most chocolate-covered datil peppers. The competition takes place at 3 p.m.
Family and Friends
GastroFest returns again to Friendship Fountain and MOSH and notes that this partnership has made the festival more family oriented. “Because MOSH has such a great audience of families on the First Coast who are there on a regular basis, it’s changed the demographic to more people with children.” Now the fest easily accommodates foodies, beer lovers, and families. And as in previous years, there will be a Fun4FirstCoastKids.com Zone filled with entertainment for children and their parents.
The Fusion Light & Sound Music Stage will also entertain festival goers with local musicians such as Tropic of Cancer, and Guy and the Yehudas performing.
The festival aims to keep in step with the evolving food scene which Thursby says reflects the fact that Jacksonville is melting pot of people and cuisine. Referring to Jacksonville cuisine, Thursby says, “Our food is the kind of food people love to eat. It’s a matter of people knowing these things are here and discovering them. That’s the heart of the festival, which is trying to bring as much of what’s tasty together and showing that off.…We want to showcase how awesome our local food scene is, which is steadily changing and growing. While we’ve seen some things open and shut, it’s wonderful to see new things cropping up and changing.”
One of the biggest changes in the last five years has been the number of vendors who offer vegan selections. The festival now schedules vegan options all day. Thursby says restaurants realize how loyal vegan customers are to places that cater to their needs and desires. “Every year we can offer more and more and every year we have a special vegan guide,” Thursby says.
This year, the festival will feature a vegan hot dog stand from Hot Dog Party, and Girls Gone Green will be selling vegan nachos. “All day there will be something for vegans,” Thursby says. “We are here for anyone omnivore, carnivore, or vegan.”
Volunteers Make It Happen
GastroFest is a festival built on passionate people giving their time. When Thursby, along with fellow board members Kamron Perry, Rachel Henley, Nathaniel Price, and Jessica Fields, took the initial concept to One Spark Festival in 2014, they had no idea they’d win the “Golden Ticket” prize given to the project thought to be most beneficial to Northeast Florida. And that passion continues to drive the festival.
Thursby is eternally grateful to the hard-working volunteers who make GastroFest a success. It’s not too late for people who want to volunteer and get involved in the festival. Thursby emphasizes, “We need volunteers who are okay with handling trash because that’s a huge job. I’ve handled trash. Sorted trash. Done the grunt work. It’s some of the most important work at the festival, and we’re grateful for any volunteer who wants to do something that makes a difference… It’s a job that helps our environment the most out of everything we do.”
Bess says, “We’re still looking for Green Team Volunteers to help man our Zero-Waste Stations. Shifts are short, and each station will have two monitors, so sign up with a friend. Besides the satisfaction that comes from being a noble steward of the earth, Green Volunteers get a t-shirt, taste ticket, and an invite to a private volunteer social at 13 Gypsies.” Signups are available on the GastroJax website.
Thursby is hopeful for the future of GastroFest and its ability to become a greener festival. “As we grow this, we can do more….All the small things add up.”
11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
BLK SHP at Intuition
3 p.m. – 7 p.m.
All-Day Tasting Vendors:
El Mariachi Loko
Girls Gone Green Vegan Nacho Bar
Hot Dog Party (Vegan Cart)
Ibex Ethiopian Kitchen
Island Girl/Nomi’s Cheese Bar
Manny’s Cuban Food Truck
…and more in our marketplace!
Educational events are a core element of GastroFest, and the very popular Vegan Wine Tasting hosted by The Zen Butcher Company will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the Wells Fargo Room inside of MOSH. For people interested in going green at home, Bess is doing a free presentation on earthworms and composting at 1 p.m., and festival goers who want to grow what they eat can attend the free workshop hosted by Eat Your Yard Jax at 2 p.m. A festival favorite, Bee Friends Farm, returns to host another free workshop on how to stay green and protect local bee population and pollinators.
Tickets to events can be purchased day-of at the Information Booth or in advance at 904tix.com. The festival recommends that if you see something you want to attend, buy tickets in advance as they often sell-out fast. All events except for the Chocolate-Covered Datil Pepper Eating Contest will take place in the Wells Fargo Room inside of MOSH.
11 a.m. – Bee Friends Farm Workshop Learn how you can go green and save our precious pollinators while sampling the best honey the First Coast has to offer. $12.
1 p.m. – Composting with Earthworms: Attend this free workshop hosted by Apple Rabbit Compost to discover how to put this important creature to work for you and the planet.
2 p.m. – Eat Your Yard Jax: Are you interested in growing what you eat? Then you won’t want to miss this workshop where you’ll learn how to diversify your yard and help save money and the environment. $5.
3 p.m. – Chocolate Covered Datil Pepper Eating Contest: Test your taste buds to see if you have what it takes to win the hottest contest in town. Sign up is free at the Information Booth, but get there early because there’s a max of 10 participants.
5:30 p.m. – The Zen Butcher Company Vegan Wine Tasting: Wine-loving Vegans and Omnivores alike will love to sample this selection of vegan wines hosted by The Zen Butcher Company. $22.
Sawyer Gas Demo Stage
Join us at the Sawyer Gas Demo Stage where local chefs will be demonstrating how-to’s all day!