Taste of Melbourne 2016

It seems only fitting that I begin this journey at home, and with the event that really started my foray into the world of food. I attended the very first Taste of Melbourne, and have been back almost every year, my perspective slowly changing from pure consumer to conceptual interest. The first year, I was only concerned with getting as many free samples as possible, running around like a kid in a candy store. All the tasting plates were cheaper that year too. But as the years progressed, the notoriety of the festival (and it’s restaurant participants) grew, and the price has edged upwards.
Nonetheless, it’s still a highly successful festival, probably the second larges
t public event on the Melbourne foodie’s calendar. I’ve seen the stallholders battle inclement Melbourne weather, observed the shift in atmospherTaste of Melbourne 2016e from the old Melbourne Exhibition Centre to the Albert Park Lawn’s, visited my favourite stallholders year on year and delighted in discovering new ones. Although I know that Taste Festivals are a global brand (and intend to visit more of them internationally next year!) it seems to be quintessentially Melbourne to Instagram yourself, out for the day, nibbling samples and drinking Sangria in the sun. I can’t wait to see how the European festivals compare!

On with the story. Last week (11th-13th Nov) the Taste of Melbourne Festival once again graced the shores of Albert Park Lake, complete with tasting dishes from some of the top Melbourne restaurants, lounge areas, live entertainment, and stalls promoting various regional wares for purchase, offering wine tastings, or running workshops. But from an industry perspective there were two novel additions of note at the 2016 Festival.

LUME LOOKING GLASS

From the well-renowned Melbourne degustation restaurant, Lume, we saw for the first time the fusion of VR (virtual reality) and hospitality in this public festival setting. Wanting to take the guest on the full journey through the foodway from farm, to preparation, to table, in a way that a restaurant dining experience alone cannot, the experience focused around Lume’s Meyer Lemon Tree dessert (currently served in the restaurant, minus the VR headset).
On arrival, I was handed a lemon inscribed with the restaurants logo as my ticket, and led through an amusing charade by an actor-host. The VR headset allowed us to walk through the restaurant, observing the decor, the bartender preparing a delicious looking cocktail (that unfortunately could not be drunk!) and then out to the lemon orchard itself, hearing about the food selection and development process and seeing the lemons being picked, before being prepared back at the restaurant as the concept is explained.
It was a short experience, roughly 20 minutes including introduction, VR experience (utilising the Oculus Rift technology) and time to eat the dessert (which is quite wonderful). However, it’s clear the scope this kind of technology could have for the industry.
In a time when ‘farm to table’ thinking is gaining increasing popularity, and consumers are pushing back against the invisible processes of mass produced foods, this shows the promise of a remarkable immersive educational experience. We can expect to see technology incorporated into hospitality more and more in coming years, and it’s certainly an exciting area to watch.

BLACK SWAN DIP TRAIN

There’s no doubt that participating in these kinds of events can be valuable but also expensive. Consumers are also critical when they don’t feel they get value out of their tickets if stallholders are ‘stingy’ with the free samples! The Black Swan dip train was not remarkable at first glance, although the moving turntable was certainly interesting.

Here was another stallholder, offering free samples – choose a tub of dip and your choice of crackers or carrot sticks. The hosts let us know that they had developed 5 special flavours especially for the Taste of Melbourne.

However, on closer inspection, I realised that the lids of these dips said “Beta”. That’s right – this free sample giveaway was in fact a product testing arena! Very clever. Using a normally costly situation (free samples) to gain real time feedback from consumers instead of paying them to participate in market research.

No doubt the popularity of each flavour would be tallied. The hosts were also asking us questions about what we thought about each flavour, was it too sweet, etc?

On top of that, they get kudos for being generous with their samples!

I could easily imagine a restaurant using a similar concept to test new menu ideas – perhaps in a VERSUS style dish face-off, or Masterchef-like tasting competitions for festival visitors. Maybe even to trial new and daring flavours from international inspiration that local guests may not be familiar with.

It’s another idea that I will be interested to see the effect of in future festivals, diversifying the overall offering.

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