Local food fest Dig-IN — A Taste of Indiana turns five this year, and organizers have learned plenty since launching the festival on a hot, late-August day in 2010.

During that first year, festival goers all seemed to arrive at once. Several thousand people attended, and most seemed to get in line at the first vendor tent they came to. Then they kept moving from vendor to vendor in what felt like one endless line. Bottled water was hard to find – as were hand-washing stations – lines were long, booths were poorly marked, and some chefs ran out of food.

Event organizers have learned a lot since then. Changes in the layout of food and drink tents in recent years made the lines more manageable. Free bottled water became easier to find, and signs indicating the type of food in each booth let attendees know what they’d be getting before waiting in line – a real plus for vegetarians looking for something that wasn’t topped with bacon. And early-arrival and VIP tickets offered an hour of less-crowded tasting and other perks for those willing to pay for it.

“I think the layout really snapped into place last year,” said the festival’s executive director Rob Gaston. “And it worked well, so we’re keeping that the same. The big focus this year has been the front gate operation, which last year we outsourced. This year we’re doing it internally.”

One of the trouble spots of last year’s fest, the front gate area was indeed poorly marked and managed. VIP ticket holders and those with early-admission tickets found themselves waiting in line as the extra hour they had paid for slowly ticked away.

Gaston started early to make sure things would be different this year.

“I formed committees starting in February,” he said, “and signed up about 20 to 25 people in three or four different committees, and front gate operations was one of those. I was clear to those people that this was the most important committee. We just met last Monday night out there, and I had a 14-page document that’s called tactical front gate strategy, and we went through it.”

The biggest strategy was to create separate entrances and make sure they are well marked and managed.

“That one unit last year is now in four separate pieces,” Gaston said, with a separate VIP and early-arrival area, an entrance for general admission ticket holders, a separate area for purchasing tickets at the gate, plus a volunteer entrance.

Those who ponied up for the sold-out $95 VIP experience or who bought early entrance tickets will have a separate entrance, he said. Staffers will be checking them in ahead of time, so that at 11 a.m., they’ll be able to head into the park and enjoy a relatively uncrowded hour of sampling.

“We’ll get them in, get their credentials and hand stamps, and then at 11,” said Gaston, “they can actually just go right in.”

So last year’s gate area is now the will-call booth and where attendees can buy tickets at the door.

“On the other end of that,” said Gaston, “in the area that has all the stones out there at the park, is where people will flow through the gate, basically just scan their ticket, get their hand stamped, get their program and get in the door. Just next to the Segway station is the VIP entrance, so it will kind of be a little bit private, an exclusive area to come in. And then on the other side of the visitors’ center is where volunteer check-in will be.”

Got that?

Just in case you don’t, Gaston will have volunteers stationed around the whole entrance area to point you in the right direction.

Changes have also been made to the parking area – at least for VIP ticket holders, who this year will be able to park on site. More signage, however, will direct all attendees to parking options. And while parking will not be available at the Indianapolis Zoo, the Indiana Government Center garage will be open as will the White River State Park underground garage.

“We recommend the government center,” said Thom England, Ivy Tech Community College culinary program director and one of Dig-IN’s founders. “That’s probably the best place to park.”

Also at this year’s festival, attendees will find a new line-up of chef demonstrations.

“Five people are coming in,” said Gaston, “and we’ll set up on the back side of the visitors’ center where we had the speakers before.”

Eli Laidlaw of The Alexander will do a pickling demo, Steve Oakley of Oakleys Bistro will demonstrate knife skills, Regina Mehallick of R bistro will demo searing techniques, Craig Baker of The Local Eatery & Pub and Plow & Anchor will talk braising, and Alan Sternberg of Cerulean is doing emulsions.

But no matter what the chefs are making, the festival picks up the tab, a key point that makes Dig-IN – A Taste of Indiana different from most food events.

“I think one of the things that people don’t know that I think is really key to what we do,” said England, “is we pay for all the stuff. So Dig-IN actually pays for all the ingredients that the restaurants are getting. We try to make it so it’s more doable for them, instead of killing their budgets.”

Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at EatDrinkIndy.com. Follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger.

Dig-IN – At Taste of Indiana

Date: Sunday, Aug. 17

Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. for general admission; 11 a.m. for VIP and early admission ticket holders

Tickets: $35 general admission and $55 early-arrival tickets are available online through Aug. 14; general admission is $45 at the gate; early arrival is $65 at the gate while available. Tickets are $10 for children age 5 to 10; free for children under 5.

Info: DigIndiana.org


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