We wrote this memorial to a great adventure just about a year ago but never shared it. Upon reflecting on the anniversary of the Festival That Never Was, we decided to share this out. Here’s to all the remarkable people and big hearts involved.
August 21st, 2018: Back in January, we first began hearing rumblings of another Phish festival in the works for the summer of 2018 at Watkins Glen. So like any local food creperie would do, we reached out to Phish to see if we might be able to find a way to participate. Their response: “If you have any creative suggestions, we are always open to them.” This simple exchange was the beginning of a very real adventure that will prove to be a milestone in life for several of us who shared in it.
With our most creative thinking caps on, we fired back to Phish with a half dozen ideas ranging from a roving cart on wheels slinging crepes to the crowd mid-set, curating a VT Food Court, raising money for their non-profit, Waterwheel. We also threw out the idea of building a temporary Skinny Pancake with walls made from reclaimed wood and tables and chairs. Never did we think the most ambitious idea would be the one to land…
By March, we were honing in on a clear vision: The Skinny Pancake would produce a fast casual pop-up restaurant and an adjacent farmers market and beer garden. We iterated and iterated, marking up over a dozen layouts in all. Patience. Diligence. Persistence. This is the world of festival work. Empathy and understanding: the logistics are complicated when the practicalities of servicing 40,000+ people are paired with the effort to create a unique and magical experience – all while knowing the build will ultimately be ephemeral: there and gone in but a weekend.
We have done many many events over the life of The Skinny Pancake, from simple vending booths to large scale vending coordination for Grand Point North. We even led festival production for our local food festival Eat by Northeast (2014- 2015) and Big Tiny Love (2018). The nature of this work is that, for folks directly involved in the production, a festival increasingly clouds and ultimately eclipses everything else in the final push. This was most certainly the case for Curveball.
Our initiative at Curveball was ambitious. We not only committed to operating and coordinating a pop-up restaurant, beer garden and farmers market, we committed to building the physical infrastructure for the experience we planned to create.
To accomplish this ambitious task, we needed a GREAT team of builders and foodservice professionals. And what a team we ended up with: Josiah Jackson of Ironwood Building and Design signed on as foreman. Reclaimed lumber specialist Adam Marsano from Small House Carpentry and his assistant Tom Ladd joined the crew as exceptionally productive carpenters. “Eddie Can Fix It” Grasmeyer joined the team as our resident Macgyver (and boy did Macgyver come in handy). Lee Anderson from the Radio Bean brought in his crew to build a major light installation. Our Marketing Team and I all signed on to help “raise the barn” with site maps, acquisitions and whatever the heck else it would take to get the job done. This motley crew came in on top of the world-class team and resources Phish itself had hired to accomplish the task of manifesting yet another one of their incredible festivals.
On Friday, August 10th, this ‘Advanced Production Team’ set off for an adventure of a lifetime. We had 4 commercial scale trailers full of lumber and materials. Every truck was packed with tools. Palettes of deliveries had been sent ahead of us. We had five days scheduled to build our vision which ran smack into the deluge of rain that would eventually become the festival’s undoing.
Saturday, August 11th through Wednesday, August 15th was what we call “pillow to pillow work”: 12+ hours a day of physically demanding manual and intellectual labor. To our own surprise, the balance of the team was ideal. The problem solving was relentless and persistent. Where there were hurdles, the question was ‘how’ not ‘if.’ Where there were metaphoric mountains to move, we had access to literal excavators from the festival producers. Despite the rain one day, the intense heat the next, the mud throughout, we persevered. Despite the stress and anxiety of a rapidly approaching deadline, the whole team kept their cool and there were remarkably few unforced errors.
On Tuesday, August 14th, the second wave of our crew departed from Vermont: our summer Festival vending team left for Watkins Glen, driving our beloved School Bus, Sueno, in addition to Samson & Deliah: our freshly painted reefer truck and trailer.
Several hours later we got that devastating call we’d heard before: Sueno was broken down on the side of the road deep in the Adirondacks. For better or worse, it was not due to a major mechanical issue. She had simply run out of gas, but a recovery shot of diesel and ether had not done the trick. So we moved to plan B: we loaded everything and everyone we needed into Samson (our concession trailer) and got the festival team back on track. An hour later, in preparing to leave the bus, our driver thought ‘what the heck, I’ll try to start it one last time…’ Lo and behold, she fired right up. In our efforts to restart her, we had flooded the engine. By waiting a few hours, the problem had fixed itself. Sueno triumphantly drove through the night to Ithaca and safely made her way to Watkins Glen the next day.
We were scheduled to open a small stand for Wednesday and the full operation on Thursday. To our own surprise, we were ahead of schedule. We set up our stand for a noon opening only to learn that the organizers had opted to not open the festival grounds to the public until the next day. “Ok…no big deal” we thought, “we’ll just open tomorrow.”
Wednesday night our build-out was done and it was stunning. We all hung out and just enjoyed the look and feel of it all. We took photos: this would be the only night it was empty before the place was overrun with the happy festival-goers setting up camp right outside the gate.
With time on our hands, we added some finishing touches on the buildout Thursday. Drink holders for cold beer were made from wood cut-offs and installed by our hammocks. Hay bales were moved around as farmers loaded in. We hosted an all staff orientation. The festival organizers were sending more fun stuff our way: magically colored piano suddenly appeared. A friendly and talented lighting designer, Jason “Liggy” Liggett volunteered to install technicolor lighting inside of Sueno to luminate her all night. It was all coming together better than we could have ever hoped. The festival organizers lauded the build-out as remarkable. We were proud of our creation and eager and ready to open the next day.
It was Thursday afternoon, August 16th. Gates were expected to open at 2pm. Those who have been following the saga know what happens next. Confusing delay after confusing delay. Rumors started to swirl and were laughed off as absurd.
Around 4pm, a member of the racetrack’s concessions team came through, telling us the gates would not open until Friday and feverishly saying he needed our cash start bank (we were working with the racetrack on our banking needs). The request confused me. What was going on?
Soon enough, however, this unfortunate information was confirmed by someone in the know. I saw the text myself: EVENT CANCELLED. Stunned. Alone with this knowledge, I looked around. Dozens of people industriously and excitedly working immediately around me, preparing for a deluge of festival goers: members of our team, the greater Phish organization, numerous other subcontractors. I walked past our build team who were proudly and happily laying in the hammocks we had installed. I grabbed two beers, one in hand, one went to my pocket. Folks took notice and asked “what’s up with that?” I said I needed to take a walk, mumbling that we were not opening until tomorrow. As I left, our amazing festival manager approached me asking if she should up her food order with the distributor for the next day, fretting she had under-ordered. I asked her to hold off.
For half an hour, I wandered around a beautiful festival ground that would never be activated. Happy vendors were all ready to go. Art installations were all completed. Production vehicles and golf carts continued to zoom back and forth.
I called our point person at Phish. The announcement would go out at 5:30pm.
At 5:15, we were given permission to tell our team. We gathered everyone together. “Attitude is everything” is easy when you’re winning. But it’s when the chips are down that it matters most. When we had to build 20 pergolas in the rain on Sunday, attitude was everything. When the bus broke down, attitude was everything. When a festival that could move mountains with an army of forklifts, pneumatic hammers and cranes was brought down by an outbreak of a single microorganism, E. Coli, it also threatened to lay waste to our single biggest initiative of 2018 and arguably our most prominent branding opportunity in the history of The Skinny Pancake. Attitude was still everything.
The E. Coli may have stopped the festival, but it didn’t lay waste to our creation. On the night of Thursday, August 16th, when we should have been enjoying a full room of festival goers and seeing our months long effort realized, we instead hosted a bittersweet and beautiful party in our pop-up creation for the few hundred organizers, artists and friends still onsite. Some we knew before the festival, others we just met, many we’ll likely never encounter again. The rug had just been pulled out from under us all, creating a heartfelt camaraderie in this strange, post-festival apocalyptic moment. The next day, we knew it would all be unwound and broken down. But for that one passing evening, we activated this beautiful space that our proud community had created. We offered up food and drink from the bar and order counter free of charge. Donations and tips flowed generously from partygoers to the pockets of our staff who missed out on a lucrative weekend of tips from hungry and thirsty festival attendees.
The next morning, we fed anyone who needed a good morning breakfast and coffee. And then we started to break it all down.
The mix of emotions and cognitive dissonance had been stunning. For those of us that shared this experience, it will be a milestone in life. It was set to be a career highlight: we absolutely exhausted ourselves doing some of the best work we’d ever done. We were proud and excited to see it activated. The feedback from these storied festival organizers was overwhelmingly and positive. And yet it was all a western mandala: this installation would be torn down before ever being seen by the tens of thousands of Phish fans who were supposed to enjoy it.
Speaking for everyone on our team, it was a privilege and a pleasure to be given this opportunity. We are deeply grateful to Phish, their entire organization, their unbelievably competent Vending Coordinator, Watkins Glen and their concessions team. Much press has gone out about Curveball’s cancellation. Where the focus should be, and where it will be for anybody who has ever gone to a Phish festival, is that no one band could pull off what Phish alone can do. The one-band festival is a remarkable feat, and they do it with class and a collaborative and supportive attitude toward everybody there helping make it happen.
The Skinny Pancake’s installation at Curveball was not the end of something failed. It represents a chapter in an exciting and ambitious career-long adventure to create simple fun and positive social impact. I don’t know a single person involved who didn’t leave with a conviction to do it again and do it better in the future. Whenever that is, wherever it is, whatever you do, take care of your shoes.
Thank you to everyone who joined us in this grand adventure.