Dave Rodney, Contributor
The 12th annual Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival came to a hugely successful close in Fort Lauderdale, Florida last month. This event has become one of the most successful, magnetic and continuously running Jamaican festivals in the United States. The event has managed to cement its brand in the lucrative New York City market for the last three years, and its next stop for the summer of 2014 is Washington, D.C. I caught up with festival founders Eddy Edwards, chairman of the Jamaica Jerk Festival USA and vice-chairman Sidney Roberts to find out what makes this festival such a winner.
Both Edwards and Roberts are from Kingston, Jamaica. Edwards is a radio host and former head boy at Ardenne High School while Roberts is an operations specialist who attended Wolmer's Boys' School. They both migrated to South Florida as youngsters and have been assiduously promoting the Jamaican culture on various platforms in that area for nearly 30 years
Dave Rodney: How did the Grace Jerk Festival get started?
Sidney Roberts: We wanted to create an event focusing on Jamaican food, and Jerk cuisine offered several fun and off-the-wall avenues to promote the event to attract Caribbean and mainstream patrons.
What were the early challenges in getting this event off the ground?
The initial festival had only seven food vendors who were unprepared for the crowd. Long food lines; vendors sold out within a few hours resulting in hundreds of hungry, angry patrons. We were overwhelmed, but encouraged by the attendance which was around 4,000.
How many people did you pull this year?
This year's attendance was around 16,500
Why is the event so alluring for residents of South Florida?
The festival is a balanced mix of family entertainment, food and display of Jamaican cultural traditions at a very attractive price. Over the years we have responded to feedback and found solutions to challenges in an effort to continually improve on the patrons 'experience at the festival.
Dave Rodney: Who were your Jamaican sponsors and how did they benefit from the event?
Eddy Edwards: Grace Foods International is our title sponsor, additionally there is the Jamaica Tourist Board, Continental Bakery, The Gleaner, Power 106 as well as companies with strong Jamaican ties such as Digicel, Western Union and Caribbean Airlines. Our sponsors benefit through our extensive marketing campaign, the opportunity to leverage the festival in their sales and marketing efforts as well as association with a reputable and successful event.
Non-Jamaican sponsors like Publix were there too. What attracted them to a Jamaican jerk festival?
Publix and other companies such as Vitamalt realise the value of the Caribbean consumer in Florida and have made a conscious effort to market directly to our community. The festival provides that vehicle for them to directly interact with the Caribbean consumer in many ways.
To what extent is the event supported by the city/ town/ municipality of Sunrise and how does the event enrich that area?
The city of Sunrise is very supportive of the event. The city is proud to be the home of this high-profile Caribbean event especially since a large section of its residents are of Caribbean heritage. The city commission has accommodated the staging of the festival with several concessions, the Sunrise Police assisted with developing a traffic pattern to increase traffic flow into and out of the venue, reducing backlog and wait times for patrons.
You've been able to successfully transplant the festival to New York City for three years. What challenges did you face to make this happen and what hurdles are you anticipating as you move into Washington D.C.?
We were very fortunate to partner with VP Records in New York and there were minimal challenges, but we had to convince the community that the festival was different from previous jerk festivals staged in New York. We are hoping that Washington D.C . will present minimal, if any challenges outside of the normal production occurrences.
Has the jerk festival been profitable and what are your long term objectives moving forward?
Over the years we have invested heavily in the festival and the focus was to always improve the event. Based on projected timelines, we have developed the festival into a major event which is now poised to deliver profitable returns on our investment. We are currently looking at options for new markets and expanding the jerk concept into viable business opportunities for the future.