It’s taken a few months for me to fully process the 2016 Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown and be able to put it all down on paper – from the good and the really good to the bad and the really bad. At the moment of its inception, the members of both the PEP Foods collective and Baltimore Vegan Drinks knew instinctively that this event had massive potential. I remember getting goosebumps on my arms as we discussed the possibility – the audacity, really – of planning a large-scale vegan mac ‘n cheese competition in Baltimore City. For me, the thought of an event like this one was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying – I knew it had a chance to be a smashing success but couldn’t help but entertain thoughts of it being a miserable failure. As is often the case in life, Baltimore’s 1st Annual Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown was a little bit of both.
We started with an organizing Dream Team. Between the members of the PEP Foods Collective and Baltimore Vegan Drinks, we were working with so much event planning experience that there was a less than 0% chance that the Smackdown would be poorly organized. We each had our own distinct areas of expertise. Whether it was social media promotion, logistics, budgeting, public relations etc., we had someone on our team who kicked ass in that area. And even though this was the first time PEP Foods and Baltimore Vegan Drinks had ever collaborated on anything, we worked as if we’d been organizing events together for years. It would in no way be an exaggeration to say that the organizing phase of the Smackdown was near flawless.
The moment we announced the event, it gained immediate traction and folks started pre-registering both as chefs and attendees. The excitement was palpable and as organizers we found ourselves working around the clock to keep up with all the inquiries we were getting from people who were interested in the event. Between the comments and questions on the Facebook page, the emails to the PEP Foods and Baltimore Vegan drinks websites and the regular phone calls, it was quite a challenge to keep up. Add to that all the supply procurement, food and drink purchasing, media outreach, marketing and promotion, volunteer and chef coordination, regular communication with the health department, fire department and various other event planning minutiae and our organizing Dream Team had our work cut out for us!
Not long after we had signed the contract with the event venue, it started to become apparent from the large number of pre-registrations that there was a chance that the Smackdown could outgrow the venue. There were no guarantees, of course, that the numbers would actually exceed the capacity of the space, but it was getting close enough for us to be concerned. Of course, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it at that point – the capacity of the space was 600 people, the pre-registrations had gotten up to 400 a week before the event, and although there was the possibility that we would get more than 200 walk-up attendees, there was just no way to know for certain and so we proceeded with our organizing efforts keeping our fingers crossed that the numbers would just work themselves out. The numbers did not just work themselves out.
On the afternoon of the Smackdown, our 30 chef participants were set up and ready to sample their vegan mac ‘n cheeses, our dozen or so volunteers were at their various stations, our judges had taken their positions at the judges’ table, our MC was at the microphone and we were ready to start the event. Oh, and there were hundreds of people standing outside the door in a line that stretched two city blocks. I think even as attendees moved through the line and began rapidly filling the venue, each of the organizers – myself included – was so engaged in managing whichever aspect of the Smackdown to which we were assigned that it didn’t initially sink in how massive the event was becoming. I, for one, was so hyper-focused on providing for the chefs’ various supply needs that I didn’t realize how packed the room had gotten until I was swallowed up in the crowd and literally couldn’t move through it. By then, of course, the wheels were already in motion and the Smackdown train wasn’t about to be stopped.
We estimate that over one thousand people showed up to the event.
To a vegan mac ‘n cheese competition.
In Baltimore City.
That actually happened.
As confident as all the organizers had been that our event was going to be a success, none of us could have imagined that a thousand people would line up outside those doors. We were more than prepared to accommodate 500 or even 600 people. But a thousand? Nuh-uh. And so the venue was packed beyond capacity, the lines to sample mac ‘n cheese were chaotic, participants were hot and irritated – with the occasional thumbs up and, “Wow, this is awesome, great event guys!” thrown in – and the organizers and volunteers spent almost the entire time in a perpetual state of scrambling to keep up with the pace of the event. The Dream Team had been bested by our own success.
On the upside, the attendees seemed to really enjoy sampling all the delicious variations of vegan mac ‘n cheese our chefs had cooked up. Even though the lines to get samples were long and excruciatingly slow, people appeared to be very engaged with the chefs, asking questions and giving feedback as they made their winding way around the room. When all was said and done the chefs had a blast and we actually got quite a bit of positive feedback and helpful constructive criticism from the attendees. Of course, there was plenty of not-so-helpful – and quite frankly vicious – criticism from those who were appalled that they should have had to wait in line (some of them for up to 45 minutes!) to engage in their God-given right to sample copious amounts of vegan mac ‘n cheese. But you know what they say: You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time …
Of all of the lessons we learned from the magnificent spectacle that was the 2016 Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown, one of our biggest faux pas that I still regret to this day is that we didn’t send a volunteer outside with a clipboard to check off the pre-registered attendees and expedite their entry into the event. Honestly, I’m convinced that had I been stationed at the entrance it would have occurred to me pretty early on that it was unfair for people who’d pre-registered and paid ahead of time to have to stand in the same long line as those who’d just walked up off the street. Alas, no one thought of doing this simple thing that probably would have stemmed the flood of negative backlash we got from some of the people who attended the Smackdown. But you live and you learn, and we certainly learned a lot from this event!
As for the 2017 Vegan Mac ‘n Cheese Smackdown, the Dream Team will be coming back together in the very near future to start planning for an even bigger event – this time with full knowledge that Baltimore City is ready, willing and able to throw down on all the hot, gooey mac ‘n cheesy goodness we can throw at them – and this time we’ll be ready to put on a truly spectacular event! Until then, may we all strive to make kinder, more sustainable choices that benefit our health, the Earth and all those with whom we share this beautiful planet!