The Taste of Tasmania is done and dusted for its 30th year. The seven-day, 95-hour trading behemoth is over for stallholders and, as always, the entrails are being examined and questions about its long-term viability are being asked.

As they often do, the organisers are claiming a major success for the latest edition – crowds up 16 percent, more stalls than ever, more ticketed events than before, better entertainment, more expensive fireworks and on it goes. But many regular stallholders are left wondering why their takings were down between 35-40 percent on the previous year. How can that be so?

Rubbery figures

The Taste is a free-entry event, so how do the organisers manage to calculate the number of punters who enter each day?  The process has never exactly been made transparent for stallholders. This year we were told that official counters (people) positioned themselves at various entry points and clicked away for specific periods; then a formula was applied to extrapolate the figures into a daily total.

Hardly an exact science, I hear you say, nor one which you might bet your house on. Do the figures, for instance, include those who enter multiple times or what about those who may have, say, crossed from the Parliament Lawns area to the main site or vice versa? Could it be they are effectively counted twice?

In previous years an anecdote circulated among stallholders that the organisers counted the total number of toilet rolls used at the event, then applied a tried-and-true formula based on female versus male usage and other vague factors to calculate the total number of visitors. This takes “bums on seats” to another level entirely, but it was probably about as accurate as the current model.

The truth is that any attendance figure will only ever be a guesstimate of sorts. Stallholders have various benchmarks to calculate how busy the event is – these include the length of the line at the Ladies toilet at the rear of the main shed, the queue to Festival mushrooms or Fish Frenzy and, simply, how crowded the main shed becomes at peak periods.

The new-look Atrium area was consistently busy throughout the event, while the main shed was strangely uncrowded, even during peak meal times. Regular sorties around the site suggested to me that this couldn’t have been a record year for attendance. Sure, there were more stalls than ever but hardly enough to tip the bottom line 35 percent south of last year.

And here’s another measurement model for you to consider: when I parked my van in the Montpellier Retreat open carpark during the final day, the older guy who accepted my cash asked how this year’s Taste had been for us. “Nowhere near as good as previous years,” I told him.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been running this carpark for the past 16 years and it’s the quietest Taste ever!”

Sponsorship: A Necessary Evil?

There’s no doubt that over the past two events Festival Director Brooke Webb has revived what was a moribund, ocean liner of a festival and successfully steered it away from potential ice-bergs (for the time being). The public is generally more positive about the Taste and so is the Muckery (for a couple of good reasons: former Lord Mayor Sue Hickey has moved into State politics and they were a sponsor). In fact, the Mercury was persuaded to sponsor the main entertainment stage though, for some bizarre reason, you couldn’t actually buy a copy of the newspaper anywhere on site.

If you’re going to expand and re-decorate the Taste and still keep it as a free event, then sponsorship is a necessary evil. And while the corporate endorsements were mostly well-spent by the organisers, the individual sponsors might be questioning how big a bang they got for their big bucks.

Listed as “festival supporters” on the second tier of sponsorship, Boag’s Brewery were at the event for the first time. They sold $7 stubbies from a container bar on the waterfront and my sources tell me they had projected sales of around 1,000 slabs over the seven days. Their actual sales were less than a third of that but they effectively ripped the equivalent of some 70 kegs from the craft beer stallholders’ potential market.

Meanwhile, Forty Spotted Gin was on board as “festival partners” or major sponsors. Trouble is, their funky “gin garden bar” on the Castray Lawns was so cunningly camouflaged with foliage that many punters didn’t realise what it was until the neon signs lit up at 9pm each night. The feeble queues the rest of the time surely had them questioning the value of their top tier investment.

But the real doozey sponsorship package was the Atrium out the back which was sponsored by Josef Chromy. They put up major dollars ($35K was whispered) simply to enjoy a wine monopoly in a prime location, close to the waterfront with lots of seating. The organisers brought The Big Cheese (Bruny Island Cheese & Beer’s Nick Haddow) on board as “food curator” of the Atrium, which allowed him effectively to choose the three best spots for his various business interests, while surrounding himself with premium food stalls, plus single cider and spirit bars.

Now, having a stallholder on board as a curator wouldn’t be a conflict of interest, would it? Nah, it’s just the good old Tassie three-degrees-of-separation at work, surely. At least, let’s hope the Chromy guys saw it that way (at last report they were sending a pallet of unsold wine back to their Relbia HQ).

The NYE non-event

As in previous years, the Taste closes mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve and then re-opens as a ticketed-only event from 6pm onwards. This allows time for the organisers and volunteers to tizzy up the area and for stallholders and staff to enjoy a nap and change into their glad-rags for the Big Party.

Paradoxically, most stallholders were busier at 2.30pm than any other day, just when the announcement came through that the site was closing down and patrons could go over to the Parliament Lawns area (if they wanted to keep eating and drinking). And when we returned at 6pm, a mere trickle of ticketed folk slunk in and the whole evening was slow-to-deadly.  At some point I bought a dozen oysters and later found out they sold only 12 dozen in total (that’s one every 30 minutes, for those of you trying to calculate wages-to-income ratios).

The organisers claimed to have sold 2,500 tickets for the night but for most of us it was the slowest trading NYE on record. The novelty of people being asked to pay $75 just to get into what is normally a free event, has seemingly worn thin. And who can blame them? Sure, you get a better view of the fireworks and whatever headline entertainment has been cobbled together (Tex Perkins and Monique Brumby this year), but you’ve still got to buy food and drink. Those partygoers around Salamanca had almost as good a view of the fireworks with no entry cost.

The Year of the Albert

For many stallholders in years gone by, the Taste was a monstrous cash cow which they milked for all it was worth – staff was paid in cash and the backpack stuffed with bank notes which disappeared off site each night remained black money. It may have financed the odd overseas trip or provided a new vehicle here or there, but the taxman was none the wiser.

These fiscal shenanigans all came to a clattering halt in The Year of the Albert (2015-16), otherwise known as the “cashless year”. Albert was the name of the Eftpos device which stallholders were issued with and is apparently named after Einstein (for no particularly good reason). But it was a genius move by the organisers who were able to apply a 10 percent levy (or “skim” as stallholders refer to it) on top of the usual stall fees; this apparently worked so well to offset costs that they reduced it to 5 percent thereafter.

Some of the Taste’s major “cash kings and queens” took their bat and ball and went home at the prospect of a cashless event. Some took the opportunity to lob hand-grenades of criticism at the organisers in the local media. (Interestingly, a few of these usual suspects were lured back into this year’s event!). Others, more pragmatic or desperate, simply increased their prices by 10 per cent (or reduced their portion sizes) and had their best ever event in The Year of the Albert. Of course, there were significantly fewer stalls that year but my packaging mole confirms that it was the biggest year for packaging requirements EVER – and that’s a pretty good measuring stick.

The cashless policy was the best thing to happen to stallholders at the Taste – people had no idea how much they were spending and they spent like sailors on shore leave. But this genius policy lasted for a solitary year, thereafter stallholders had to accept cash and card transactions and the Great Bonanza was a one-year wonder.

Of course, the organisers now had hard data about how much each stallholder took, so that fudging your cash reconciliation in future years became problematic. For those of us who had nothing to hide, the cashless regime was brilliant and forewent the need to deposit money and load up on change (on the rare occasion the banks happened to be open over the silly season).

New Year’s Day Ingredient Swindle

There is nothing like the Taste of Tasmania anywhere else in the country. Certainly no food and drink event which goes for a full week and is held over the traditional holiday season. Even the free entry is an anomaly but we’ll get to that a little later.

Of course, it’s no holiday for stallholders and staff who are working their butts off in hot, smokey, sweaty, smelly conditions, while the rest of the country is at the beach or the shack (or at Taste, hopefully). And one major problem for stallholders is that many freight companies, suppliers and cool-stores close over the period, especially on New Year’s Day.

Popular food stalls fall victim to their own success as they desperately try to restock ingredients that have run out. So how do they do it? Here’s one of the unknown secrets of the Taste: the Great NYD Ingredient Swindle! That’s right – the Tassie artisan bacon rasher which was part of the signature slider dish on the first few days … might just be replaced by a generic brand bought at Woolies or Coles (they are open on NYD, after all) and that berry dessert might be served with a national ice-cream brand, rather than the boutique local variety listed on the menu board.

As stallholders, we notice the deterioration of some of the dishes we enjoyed on the first couple of days and the “bulking out” of dishes around missing ingredients. Food vendors, in particular, don’t want to get caught with a mountain of unsold stock but they don’t want to run out of anything either. It’s a tricky balancing act, not helped by the length and timing of the Taste.

Why Seven Days?

Many of us regular stallholders have often asked: Why does the Taste last seven days? Because it always has, is the simple answer. But then the whole purpose of the Taste has changed inexorably since the first one in 1988.

We are told that it was created originally with the Sydney to Hobart sailors and support crews in mind. They might need refreshment and sustenance after such an arduous voyage, it was thought. But the whole race has changed to the extent that the maxi yachts are arriving in Hobart before the Taste even kicks off. And while some yachties and families find their way to the Taste, most crews indulge in a “quiet little drink” at the Customs House and then fly home.

And for the past two years a mini food and drink festival has popped up near the race headquarters behind Elizabeth St Pier, giving the yacht followers even less reason to visit the Taste.

The final two days of Taste have never been the strongest trading days for stallholders and there seems no good reason why the event shouldn’t end on New Year’s Day. Perhaps shrinking the Taste to five days and limiting the number of stalls (most beverage stalls would even agree with the common perception that there is far too much grog at the event already), would ensure its future.

The free entry is a holy cow and one of the event’s most endearing features. The Taste of Tasmania is a great festival but the slippery juggling act among the organisers, Hobart City Council, the State Government and corporate sponsors means its future will never be entirely certain.

Willie Simpson,  is co-owner of Seven Sheds Brewery, eight times Taste stallholder. Former freelance journalist.