Ian McNulty: As Jazz Fest goes cashless in 2023, some see more food changes ahead

Ian McNulty: As Jazz Fest goes cashless in 2023, some see more food changes ahead
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As usual, people going to the New Orleans and Jazz Heritage Festival should bring an appetite. This year, though, they can leave the cash behind. They should also be prepared for a raft of changes in the famously steady-running food options at the fest.

Much more than an amenity around the event, Jazz Fest food is an integral part of the draw and the experience, turning the Fair Grounds into a giant food festival within a music festival. The vendors have become part of the culture and traditions that many people build around the fest.

That means even minute changes to the menu are tracked by hungry aficionados. This year brings a multitude of them, and perhaps some foreshadowing of more to come.

Baked in are higher costs for food and staffing, by now universally recognized across the hospitality sector. There is a population of vendors who are beloved and long-serving, but also getting up there in years and making decisions about their future. And, overarching it all, is a fundamental change in how all vendors across the festival take payments.

This is the first year Jazz Fest is cashless, joining the mainstream for other large-scale events, but also signaling a distinct change in the way vendors with decades of experience at the festival will now operate.

Festgoers can use cards and digital payment methods (like Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay) and those who arrive with only cash can buy prepaid cards at cash exchange stations inside the festival (where ATMs were previously found). These cards can also be used outside the festival.

For many vendors though, there is trepidation about how the change will impact their bottom line, customer response to price increases to cover processing fees and the speed at which they can make transactions at the booth.

Some are looking at this year as a time to assess what they’ll do in the future.

“We’re going to give it another try, but we’re nervous about it. If it doesn’t go well, we just don’t know about next year,” said Vicky Patania, who with her husband Dennis runs Galley Seafood, the Metairie restaurant that serves soft-shell crab and catfish po-boys at Jazz Fest.






Soft shell crab po-boys are a distinctive flavor of Jazz Fest from food vendor Galley Seafood. (Staff photo by Ian McNulty, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)


“This will be 46 years of us doing it. You do something like this for that long, it becomes part of your life,” she said.

One prominent vendor that bowed out ahead of the 2023 Jazz Fest is Panorama Foods, maker of crawfish bread and a 35-year veteran of the fest. Crawfish bread creator John Ed Laborde said that decision came through a matrix of factors he called “stressors,” including his age in light of the all-consuming effort of Jazz Fest (he’s now 65), the cost of raw materials, and changes to how vendors operate this year, which he called “the final nudge.”







Ian McNulty: The song remains the same for New Orleans Jazz Fest food. If that’s music to your ears, enjoy it while it lasts _lowres

Photo by Ian McNulty – Crawfish bread is a classic dish at New Orleans Jazz Fest that draws many fans.


The food scene has other significant changes this year, with at least a dozen new dishes in the lineup (which I’ll assess in turn once the fest begins). Multiple vendors who missed 2022 are still on hiatus (see related story) and a few are making their first return since the pandemic.







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Jamaican chicken with a curry chicken patty is a full meal combo plate from Palmer’s Jamaican Cuisine at Jazz Fest. (Staff photo by Ian McNulty, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)


That includes Palmer’s Jamaican Cuisine with its jerk chicken and Caribbean fish, and CCI Catering (previously called Crescent Catering), which this year will serve a duck and shrimp pasta and a turducken po-boy (in place of its previous Cajun duck po-boy).

Cashless across the board

Cashless transactions have become increasingly common at large events, and in everyday life.

A survey from research group Statista found the percentage of retail cash transactions in the United States was down to 12% in 2022, with cards holding steady and digital and mobile wallet options largely making up the difference.

Cashless payments are not entirely new at Jazz Fest either, where some food vendors accepted cards alongside cash in prior years.

This year’s cashless policy is comprehensive. It also comes with a suite of supporting infrastructure to enable wireless transactions even amid the ocean of data demand from all those phones in use by the festival crowds.

In a statement, Jazz Fest officials say they have “created a new, private network engineered specifically for and dedicated solely to Jazz Fest business during the event.” That’s a change from past years, when vendors who accepted cashless payments used their own networks.







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New Orleans Jazz Fest food: Crawfish sack, oyster patties and crawfish beignets by Patton’s Caterers.




Patton’s Catering — the vendor known for its head-turning crawfish sack, oyster patty and crawfish beignet combo plate — runs food booths at other events that have gone cashless.

Erin Merrick, part of the Patton’s family, said given the scale of Jazz Fest, she’s still anxious about the infrastructure to support these payments keeping up. She also recognizes the change is a sign of the times.







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Crawfish sack and its likeness on a shirt from Jazz Fest food vendor Patton’s Caterers, created as a tribute to the Rolling Stones would-be appearance in 2019.




“It’s 2023, this is becoming the norm now. You have to have faith going into it that we’ll figure it out on the fly. After all, that’s been our mantra since 2020,” when the pandemic began, she said.

Prices at the stands will be higher this year, in part to offset processing fees from cashless payments. For instance, that Patton’s all-star combo plate is $24 this year, up from $20 last year.

Merrick has seen customer response to these changes vary at other events, including this year’s French Quarter Festival, which accepted cashless payments but also kept a cash option.

“What we saw at French Quarter Fest was a generational divide …. Younger people are just used to it and understand there’s processing fees on everything and that gets passed down the line,” she said.

Swift supply, high demand

Newer vendors are more comfortable with the cashless approach. The downtown restaurant Carmo had its first full-fledged booth at Jazz Fest last year and returns again this year with Gulf fish tacos, shrimp tacos and other dishes. Last year its booth accepted cashless sales using its own network. This year, Carmo co-owner Dana Honn says he’s much more confident in Jazz Fest’s own system to keep up with the draw.

The cashless policy applies to all sales across the fest, from tickets at the gate to craft and merchandise booths. It’s the food and beverage vendors, however, that see the greatest volume of small transactions, and where the speed of service is key to keeping lines moving.







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Crawfish Monica has been served for 35 years Jazz Fest in New Orleans, La. Friday, April 27, 2018/ (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)


Crawfish Monica, for instance, typically runs six lines for its immensely popular Jazz Fest dish — rotini in a spicy cream sauce with crawfish tails. Co-owner and namesake Monica Davidson said they can average one serving per second across those six lines. Keeping up with the switch to cashless is one of her big concerns.







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The Hilzims, from left, Stephanie, Monica Davidson, Pierre and Brooke at the Crawfish Monica booth in 2018 at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. The Hilzims have been at the fest for 36 years. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archive)




“We’ve been doing this so long, so change is tough for all of us,” she said. “But we’re excited, the (music) lineup is great, so we’re taking it one day at a time. Deep breaths, that’s what we’re saying.”

She also recognizes an upside for vendors if all goes smoothly.

“I just hope it goes so well that in the end, we don’t have to think about dealing with cash and change and bringing it all home at night,” she said.

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About Mary Weyand 11096 Articles
Mary founded Scoop Tour with an aim to bring relevant and unaltered news to the general public with a specific view point for each story catered by the team. She is a proficient journalist who holds a reputable portfolio with proficiency in content analysis and research. With ample knowledge about the Automobile industry, she also contributes her knowledge for the Automobile section of the website.

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