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Inside Desert Trip’s Plan to Deliver Culinary Experiences for All Those Hungry (and Well-Heeled) Festival Goers

As the opening weekend of Desert Trip nears, Billboard spoke with Nic Adler about the challenges of putting together food and beverage for this concert like no other. "It will change the way you look…

For many, Desert Trip, set for Oct. 7-11 and Oct. 14-16, will be the concert of a lifetime, powered by performances from the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Neil Young, The Who and Bob Dylan. L.A. concert scene veteran Nic Adler, food and beverage director for Desert Trip under producer Goldenvoice, wants to make sure fans have the eating and drinking experience of a lifetime, as well.

Adler, the son of legendary music executive Lou Adler, was raised in rock and roll and still owns the legendary Roxy Theatre on Sunset Blvd. (now operated and booked by Goldenvoice). Three years ago, Adler “pivoted” to Goldenvoice, where he oversees the Camp Flognaw, FYF and Eat Drink Vegan fests, and directs food and beverage for Coachella, StageCoach, Panorama, and now Desert Trip.

With two performances per day, Desert Trip is not really a festival in the traditional sense and, with its baby-boomer core and generally well-heeled demo, boasts an audience unique among festivals. This created a challenge for Adler and his team, and it seems they met that challenge with diversity of offerings and price points. Throughout the festival, Adler will oversee two main operations. The Culinary Experience opens each day when the gates open at 2 PM, an is characterized as a full-on food festival. Priced all inclusive at $179 per day ($499 for the weekend), the Experience features 20 respected SoCal restaurants from which fans can enjoy an entrée, appetizer, and passed app from each. The Beverage Experience include 30 curated wines from one of the most respected names in wine, Rajat Parrt, along with over 60 craft beers put together by the Godfather of Craft Beer, Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch. Well-known bar operator Cedd Moses team up with the another of L.A.’s nightlife titans, Houston Bros., to create what producers believe might be one of the best cocktail and tasting programs ever.

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The other main program at Desert Trip is called Outstanding In The Field, basically intimate sit-down white tablecloth dining for 800. Billed as a “farm to table” dining experience, Outstanding will feature more than 45 of the country’s best chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson, Alex Guarnaschelli, Micheal Voltaggio, Jonathan Sawyer, Duff Goldman, and many more, all serving a four course meal paired with wines selected by Parrt, and beer from Koch. Price tag: $225 per person, and Adler says Outstanding, with its limited capacity, is nearing sellout.

As the opening weekend of Desert Trip nears, Billboard spoke with Adler about the challenges of putting together food and beverage for this concert like no other. “It will change the way you look at festivals,” Adler vows.

Billboard: So what in your background led to you being food and beverage director at major festivals like Desert Trip and Coachella?

Nic Adler: I love to eat and drink. (laughs). I’ve opened restaurants and bars, growing up I was always running back and forth from the Rainbow to the Roxy. I started a Vegan beer fest that grew from around 300 people eight years ago to 8,000 this year. Basically, I love food and I have a production background.

So how did you approach food and beverage for Desert Trip?

I overuse the word “experience” because we can eat and drink at Coachella, Desert Trip, or any festival, but it’s the experience that sets it apart. You can have a beer area, but we created a Beer Barn and brought in amazing people to curate it. It’s one thing to have great vendors, but it’s really the experience around it that makes it special. Do you sit down? Are you sitting at a sushi bar? Are you at a beautiful table with 250 people that have never been there, drinking wine and having a four-course dinner? Are you getting a reservation for a sit-down restaurant? All of these real-world experiences that you’re maybe used to doing in your own home town or on vacation, we brought those to this festival. And with Desert Trip, we refined them and made them for the generation coming to this show. We can do a lot of the things we do at Coachella, but we obviously have a different clientele coming to Desert Trip, so we focused on that.

Paul T. tells me it’s a pretty wide demo coming to Desert Trip.

I agree with Paul, we’ll have a pretty big spread, but we’ll have a core that’s looking for a little different experience maybe than someone running from stage to stage and needs a quick wrap or bowl because they’re moving fast. We wanted to give longer experiences to these people. The two main experiences are The Culinary Experience and Outstanding In The Field. The Culinary Experience is a food and beverage festival that takes place 2-6:30 every day. If you take the Stones and every thing out of here and just had that food and beverage experience, I think it would rival most food and beverage festivals around the country. You buy the pass to Culinary Experience and come in and there are these 20 restaurants. Each have an entree, each have an appetizer, and each have passed appetizers rolling around. Then you have a wine experience from Raja, he’s put together a wine lineup taking every single part of the show into account: what music, what band, what is the environment, the temperature, and picked 30 wines that are going to blow people’s minds. Then we have Greg from Stone Brewing, one of the number one craft beer companies in America, he came in and personally curated all of the beer we have in Culinary Experience and the Beer Barn. He went to his friends that are brewers and said, “give me something that nobody’s ever had unless they were in a back room and you were drinking it with them.” He’s got 50 beers no one’s ever tried. The third beverage experience is Cedd Moses, who owns the top 10 bars in LA, and the Houston Bros., which owns the other top 10, and the two of them are doing different experiences with hand-made cocktails, tequila tasting, craft on draft.

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Describe Outstanding in the Field.

Outstanding in the Field is also something we do at Coachella. It’s a beautiful table in the Rose Garden, at Coachella it seats 250. It’s a four-course meal, we bring in the biggest chefs, with wine pairings, you sit with friends and have this two-hour dinner. What’s different at Desert Trip is it’s going to be 800 people at once, having dinner at a beautiful white linen table, and we brought in names known across the country. Each night at 3 you come in, have cocktails, sit at 3:30, there are four different chef teams, 16 chefs cooking each day, no doubt about it, the biggest chefs in the country. It takes about two hours, served family style, you sit across from someone you’ve never met before. For most people that’s daunting, but when you leave that table you’ve exchanged numbers, made friends, you watch show together. This table is as much about sitting and having amazing food from amazing chefs as it is being part of this bigger community. The conversations that will happen at that table will be amazing. Then at the end of the meal, the wine makers, the farmers, the chefs, all walk the table, it’s a really special moment.

Much of this Desert Trip audience one could assume has not been part of the festival boom. Is there an educational process in play here?

There is, but one of the reasons we had Culinary Experience is this group is used to going to great beer and food festivals, that is something this crowd enjoys that is why we built this experience tailored to them. It has shaded areas, air conditioned lounges, great seating, all in Culinary Experience. The minute they walk in and get a cold towel for their face, an Arnold Palmer, and go for their first cocktail and roast beef sandwich from Top Round, they’ll recognize this is something they’ll enjoy.

Inside Desert Trip's Plan to Deliver
       Courtesy of Goldenvoice

How are these experiences selling?

Outstanding in Field is close to selling out. For Culinary Experience we took over a large area, so we actually have some room.

How do you take into account knowing you’ll have more people in there 50s or 60s?

One of the things we talk about at Coachella is fun food and fast food, things that look almost “Instagram-able.” While that’s also important at Desert Trip, we went with vendors that the chefs behind it are know and respected for the best food. Sometimes at Coachella we look at it like a hot band, almost like an A&R guy, “is it a great album or one dish that’s unbelievable?” At Coachella, we go with that one dish, that’s what those crowds want, something that will blow their minds. At Desert Trip it’s more about how can I make sure that every restaurant on there is respected, they’ve been around. On Coachella, we definitely try to debut restaurants, we don’t have a lot of new restaurants on Desert Trip. These are just Los Angeles’ and Southern California’s best restaurants.

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What about the people who blew their budgets just getting to Desert Strip and can’t do $200 for dinner?

That’s who we built the festival for. These two things (Experience and Outstand) are obviously not for everyone, so there is more linear feet of food at Desert Trip than we’ve ever done at any of our festivals. We know these people don’t want to wait. At Coachella, no problem, you can wait in line, but our lines aren’t even that bad. This crowd wants to walk up, get their food, and go back to what they’re doing, at a price point they’ll be totally happy with. Whether it’s a Spicy Pie pizza for $7, Pad Thai fresh off the wok, burgers, tacos, salads, wraps, you name it, we have thousands of feet of those kinds of food. My job is to find experiences and the biggest chefs in the world, but, really, that’s for a small part of the people that are coming. The 70 percent who did whatever they could to come to this show, they can eat and drink and not feel they’ll run out of money before the end of the weekend.

What did you learn from the people who purchased tickets?

That people want Desert Trip to be tomorrow. The anticipation for the show, the questions, people want information, and when you talk to them it sounds like it’s happening tomorrow. And, finally, it is almost tomorrow, but from the minute they bought those tickets they wanted to know when they’re arriving, what does this place look like? We’ve been here 17 years doing Coachella, we know what it looks like, as do most of the people that come to Coachella. For most people coming to Desert Trip, there are so many unknowns about what this experience is going to be like. And for this demo, they don’t take those risks in their everyday life. And how many things do you do that’s once in a lifetime? Those opportunities don’t come up very often, and we want to make sure we deliver on that once-in-a-lifetime experience for these people, because they deserve it. It’s not like they bought a ticket to Staples Center, valet park, get on an escalator and go to seat. It’s much different here, they went out on a limb, so just making sure we deliver on our promise of an amazing experience is what we’re all working for every day here.

What has it been like on the Empire Polo Grounds leading up to Desert Trip?

I live out here now, and I’ve never seen so much activity. It’s just people working, and proud of the work they’re doing. Everybody gets out there on the field and it’s their piece of the show, they’re so proud and want to make sure they see it through to the end. Paul went after the best possible talent, and it trickles down from there. You don’t mess with people’s dreams.