Finger Lickin’ Growing Pains

National Fried Chicken Festival set to draw crowd in the hundreds of thousands
illustration by Tony Healey

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on BizNewOrleans.com.


Fried chicken is one of those perfect foods that can reflect the seasoning of any culture that cooks it, portioned as wings, legs, white meat or dark. The bits of breading that fly into your mouth upon your first bite, the steam that is released from perfectly cooked skin, the juxtaposition of textures as you chew… they all culminate into one perfect reason to join your brethren and attend the third annual National Fried Chicken Festival, Sept. 22 and 23.

Building on the success of its sophomore-year expansion to Woldenberg Park, the National Fried Chicken Festival (FCF) returns to the Mississippi riverfront this year, and Spears Group, the festival’s organizer, expects more than 200,000 attendees.

“We are very grateful for the support we have gotten and we are proud to be such a fast-growing festival,” said Cleveland Spears III, FCF organizer and president/CEO of the Spears Group, “but it comes with its own unique challenges. What we have been realizing is that our growth means our expenses are that of a major festival, but the sponsor community hasn’t yet attached the value on our festival that they have on older festivals.”

Other free, local festivals, like French Quarter Festival and Bayou Boogaloo, have dealt with similar challenges. The lack of revenue from admission can burden the operating budget and creates a highly competitive field to secure sponsors, making it especially important for free festival attendees to abide by rules that prohibit outside food and drink. The money generated by vendors is critical to the ongoing success of an event.

For a popular food event like FCF, there’s a vendor waiting list with over 100 restaurants on it. As of press time, more than 30 food vendors were secured, representing local fried chicken experts as well as vendors from Alabama, California, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. Truly a national event, presenting sponsor Raising Cane’s is promoting FCF in its locations across the country and in national advertising. It even held a contest to give away seven trips for two to travel to New Orleans for the event.

Spears said that both the growth and the response from attendees has been a huge surprise.

“When we come up with ideas at the company [Spears Group] and we think they’re good ideas, we take them on and make them happen,” he explained. “But we didn’t know what a good idea this was. There is incredible enthusiasm for this festival. People are excited to come out for it. Event merchandise is shipped nationally and people will buy merchandise a month out and wear it to the festival.”

Those visitors from afar help sustain the New Orleans tourism industry. This year, Spears Group partnered with Sonder, a short-term rental company that creates “deconstructed hotels” for nightly and extended stays in New Orleans and other major international destinations.

“We think this creates a great opportunity for families to travel to New Orleans and have additional space and additional square footage to have a family vacation,” said Spears. “We want to make sure our festival stays as innovative as possible.”

Work is already underway for FCF 2019, and Spears shared that if things go according to plan, the event will add Friday — becoming a three-day annual festival held every third weekend of September.

While a free festival, VIP tickets are available online for the Moët Chicken & Champagne VIP Lounge for $75 each day. Other free amenities include the AT&T Football Fan Zone, the Go NOLA Mist and Chill Lounge and a kid’s pavilion. Music over the course of two days will be a combination of live bands and DJs on three stages. There will also be the Rouses Sizzle Shack Cooking Demo stage where cooking demonstrations are planned with chefs Nino (Neil Thibodaux), Marc Ardoin and Ron Dupart. Collaborations are also planned with chefs Byron Bradley and Chris Okorie, Patty Morton and Cassidy Lewis, and Syrena Johnson and Alex Anderson.

To see the full festival lineup, vendors and to purchase VIP tickets, visit friedchickenfestival.com.

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