What began in 1996 as an annual one-day food-and-wine "extravaganza" hosted at Florida International University's Biscayne Bay Campus has morphed into a four-day culinary power summit overlooking the ocean. The man behind the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is founder and director Lee Schrager, who hatched the idea in 2002 for Southern Wines & Spirits.
"I never dreamt [the festival] would get this big, but I'm not surprised," he explains. "I try to clone myself during festival time — it doesn't work. I mainly look forward to thanking as many sponsors, chefs, etc., in person as I can. "
Schrager's instincts have been on point since the beginning. He is somehow always one step ahead of trend. Case in point: technology. Traditional media outlets have been kind to the festival — in part owing to Schrager's core skill, networking — and in this new age of social media, the event has dedicated Facebook pages, and he is on Twitter (twitter.com/lee_schrager).
"I love these outlets because they allow us to connect on a daily basis — something that in the past has been more difficult for an annual event," Schrager reflects. "Food bloggers have also become a very important part of this industry."
Planned for the 2010 show is the return of the popular Amstel Light Burger Bash, hosted by Rachael Ray (Thursday, February 25), and the Perrier-Jouët BubbleQ, hosted by Emeril Lagasse (Friday, February 26). Newcomers include events such as the Wine + Dine + Design (Saturday, February 27) and personalities such as Bethenny Frankel, dubbed a "celebrity natural chef."
The future will include New York, where Schrager started a sister festival last year. "We let the location dictate the festival program, and try to create events that are unique to the area," Schrager says of the Big Apple show. "Things that work well in South Beach wouldn't necessarily work in New York City, and the other way around."
Food Network, the main sponsor, will tote in its cast of celebrity chefs. These days, the food business is show business, after all, and that's where Schrager shines. He says, "As long as people eat and drink, they will always have a place in our lives."