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Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival sets the table for return after pandemic

Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival sign.
Nancy Farrar
Tacos and Tequila event in 2019.

After six years of celebrating Fort Worth’s thriving culinary scene, the party came to a halt in 2020 as the pandemic took hold.

Now, after a two-year hiatus, the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival is back with an expected 7,000-plus food lovers gathering to taste, smell and drink some of the area’s interesting and innovative culinary offerings from March 31 to April 3.

A few nights before the festival, director Julie Eastman was toasting the positive response after being mostly quiet for two years.

“We’ve sold out two events and are close to selling out another,” she said. “It’s been a great response.”

For Kari Crowe of Fort Worth’s Melt Ice Cream, which has three locations and a fourth on the way, has always made it a priority to be at the festival.

“It’s been a really fun way for us to get our product in front of customers that might not have ever heard of us or have ever tried us,” she said. “And it’s just a really great time for us to be able to showcase, whether we’re going to offer a new product or try something out to kind of stretch out creatively.”

The festival was founded in 2013, along with the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation, whose mission is to promote the culinary scene, educate the public about food and drink and to give back to the community. To date, the foundation has distributed $325,000 for culinary scholarships. When the pandemic halted the festival in 2020, the foundation shifted its mission to help struggling food businesses across the city.

“We created the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund,” said Russell Kirkpatrick, general manager at Reata and a co-founder of the festival. “What that did was give us the ability to get funds to current restaurant employees that needed help. We were able to give up to $500 to employees that just needed help, whether it was medical bills due to COVID, whether it was just paying rents, whether it was gas in the car.”

The fund has supported 254 individuals with grants totaling $113,315, according to the festival organizers.

The organization has decided to keep the program even as the pandemic recedes, Kirkpatrick said.

“If there’s an employee here in town that needs help, there’s still an application process that we can give some money,” he said.

Juan Rodriguez, of Magdalenas, said the festival is great for marketing and publicity, but he also sees a big benefit from the work of the foundation.

“I have a lot of students from the culinary schools working with us, and it’s nice that the foundation gives back to students who want to pursue culinary careers, either with grants, or even helping out the schools with equipment and stuff like that,” he said. “I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life. So if we can get some kids interested and have the means to go to culinary school with grants, then it’s even better for us.”

This year’s festival features six tasting events on the menu with five taking place at the Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork, a tree-shaded open space at Edwards Ranch along the Trinity River. Thursday night opens the event with the Tacos + Tequila party ($50) that features 18 chefs and 12 tequila vendors and closes with the Sunday afternoon open-flame cooking demos during Ring of Fire: A Next-Level Cookout ($65) that showcases 22 pitmasters and chefs, and 15 beverage vendors.

The only non-Clearfork event is the Nite Bites ($60), a dessert, whiskey and cocktail event that takes place at the 112-acre Whiskey Ranch, where TX Whiskey is distilled.

The festival founders were inspired by the Buffalo Gap Wine & Food Summit at Perini Ranch in West Texas, Kirkpatrick said.

“We were there with maybe a dozen Fort Worth chiefs, and the demand for that event — it would sell out 500 tickets in five minutes every year,” he said. “So, we thought, if there’s a demand two and a half hours west of here for our talent, why don’t we try to put something together in Fort Worth?”

Demand for tickets to the event has continued, Kirkpatrick said.

“You can really put your effort into creative ways to create the best festival and really use your resources in that manner. Instead of focusing on how are we going to sell tickets,” he said, “it’s more how are we going to produce such a festival that people leave with a wow factor every year?”

Michael Crain, who represents District 3 on the Fort Worth City Council, officially opened the festival March 29 by opening a bottle of champagne with a saber. He sees the event as key to supporting an industry that is important to Fort Worth.

“I think the festival is a great way we can support the creative community and to show the diversity of Fort Worth,” he said. “It’s all here.”

If you go…

Location: Primary location is Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork, but the Nite Bites event will be held at Whiskey Ranch .

Admittance: Tickets for events range from $50 to $195.

Date: March 31-April 3

Schedule: You can read more about the festival here.

This story was originally published by Fort Worth Report.