“When you reach these anniversary years,” Gillian Zettler says, “it’s a balance of looking backward and looking forward.”
She just wrapped a photo shoot in the gleaming white test kitchen at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s offices on Rutledge Avenue, and we’re sitting at a long conference table in the corner.
When the 2020 festival pops the cork at the opening ceremonies in March, it will mark the 15th anniversary of what is now a cornerstone event on Charleston’s culinary calendar. It will also mark Zettler’s fifth year as executive director — a period she describes as a blur, and one that has brought plenty of change.
The festival was launched in 2006 with the goal of drawing more attention to Charleston’s rising dining scene. The organizers felt the city’s restaurants had been neglected by the national media and hoped to position the Lowcountry as a premier culinary destination.
It worked. The first event drew more than 5,000 attendees, and it helped score the city an influential New York Times profile from R. W. Apple. By the time founding director Angel Postell stepped aside after the 2013 event, the festival was drawing more than 20,000 guests a year, and Lowcountry cuisine had vaulted its way to national and even international acclaim.
The organization was sailing into choppy waters, though. It had lost money three years in a row, and shortly after the 2014 event wrapped, all of the full-time staff members departed. Just a few months into her new job as executive director, Zettler had to rebuild from the ground up.
Five years later, she says, “the festival is in a really healthy financial position.” The numbers bear that out. According to the nonprofit’s public IRS filings, revenue from donor contributions has doubled since 2014, and ticket sales have increased steadily each year. By 2018 the festival was not only in the black but had a solid cash reserve.
It had also rebuilt its permanent staff, moved into a new location, and started evolving its vision for the future.
I ask Zettler about the festival’s larger purpose today, now that Charleston is firmly established as a culinary destination. “The thing that is most important,” she says, “is providing points of connection and a place to share stories. It’s our job to create a space for people to do that . . . to ask why do we eat the food that we eat? To acknowledge our history.”
Key to that vision is expanding the festival’s reach beyond a single five-day event. “It’s important that we make sure our voice is present in the community 365 days a year,” Zettler says. “In the early stages of [my] moving to Charleston, it was a goal right out of the gate to get to a space where we can do programming.”
Last year, the W+F team moved into new offices at 635 Rutledge, just a block from Hampton Park. With bright white walls, high ceilings, and exposed ductwork, the space feels very open and airy. It’s anchored by a sleek, state-of-the art test kitchen with stainless steel appliances and rolling modular countertops that can be reconfigured for everything from recipe testing and photo shoots to beverage workshops and cooking classes.
“It’s smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood, too,” Zettler adds, and they can make their conference rooms available to local chefs and festival partners to use for meetings.
The festival has focused its recent charitable efforts on the city’s culinary infrastructure. Its primary donation is to the culinary training program at One80 Place, which works to end and prevent homelessness in Charleston. The five-week course teaches at-risk clients the skills they need to land a restaurant job, ending with a one-week paid externship at a local restaurant.
Back in March, some of those externships were at the festival itself, for one of the two commissary kitchens where visiting chefs prepped for events was hosted at One80 place. Wine + Food also donated more than 3,000 pounds of food to the organization.
The festival also funds two scholarships for students in the College of Charleston’s Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Last year they hosted 10 interns from the college and provided a capstone experience for 19 students in a senior-level communications class, who effectively served as the festival’s PR agency. “Our hope,” Zettler says, “is that all of these folks stay and become a part of the Charleston industry.”
The heart of the festival, though, remains the five days in early spring (this year, Wed. March 4-Sun. March 8), when the crowds descend to sip and dine their way around the city at a series of signature events, collaborative dinners and lunches, beverage workshops, and hands-on classes.
Tickets went live at 8:00 a.m. this morning, Wed. Aug. 28, and those looking to get in on the action shouldn’t delay. Last year, many of the prime events sold out months in advance, but Zettler promises there should still be a lot to choose from.
Looking to the future, Zettler says, “we don’t want to sit still.” Attendance in 2019 was down a little from the previous year (from 29,072 to 25,746), but Zettler says that was by design. “Where we’ve been is pretty much the max of where we are going.”
The focus now is less on driving growth and more on the mission, including expanding the festival’s reach within the community as a whole. “We have a great opportunity with the platform we have now,” Zettler says. “We are trying to get out and be more connected in the community — having conversations that are uncomfortable as a white woman with a bit more privilege. Who are we talking to, who do we not know? It’s hard and it takes work.”
When I ask how those efforts will be reflected in some of the events at this year’s festival, she pauses, then smiles. “Take a look at the lineup and let me know.”