The buzz generated around Scottsdale Culinary Festival’s 40-year anniversary last year was infectious.
So, can the Scottsdale League for the Arts (SLA), a nonprofit organization that organizes the Scottsdale Culinary Festival every year, possibly top the success of last year’s event at this year’s festival, slated to take place on April 13 and 14 at the Scottsdale Civic Center?
The short answer from SLA President Glenn Azzari is a confident “yes.”
“It’s become an iconic Scottsdale event,” he said. “Everybody wants to go there, they want to be seen there, and everyone loves to see their favorite restaurants showcased at the festival.”
It’s a word used to describe the annual culinary event often by Azzari – “iconic” – and he isn’t wrong.
The Scottsdale Culinary Festival started in 1978 when the SLA, which supports and raises funds for the arts and arts education programs, was formed.
It remains one of the largest culinary festivals in the nation.
“It was started 41 years ago by a group of gentlemen who were just trying to create a fundraiser to help capital improvements for the [Scottsdale] Center for the Performing Arts,” Azzari said. “It just kind of caught on from there, and it grew and grew and grew into what it is today.”
In addition to the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, SLA hosts other food-centric events: the Brunch Club, Cooks + Corks, the Four Peaks Burger Battle and the Cocktail Society.
One-hundred percent of net event proceeds from these events go directly to nonprofit arts organizations throughout Maricopa County.
Since year one, the festival that attracts nearly 30,000 attendees has donated $5 million to the arts.
The Scottsdale Culinary Festival, specifically, accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of the money raised each year by SLA.
“Last year, we raised just over $100,000 for our grant program,” Azzari said.
Twenty-four organizations benefited from last year’s net proceeds; 2018 grant recipients included Ballet Arizona, East Valley Children’s Theatre, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Heard Museum and more.
This year’s Scottsdale Culinary festival will feature the staples attendees have grown to know and love over the decades, including three stages of live music from more than 20 bands with Orange County, California-based, new wave band Berlin headlining on Saturday; the Four Peaks beer garden, a wine garden and spirits lounge; two days of culinary demonstrations; a VIP area and – the real stars of the show – around 35 participating restaurants.
New to the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, however, is an arts section featuring posters from all 41 years of the festival.
“Because of what we have going on with the construction, we’ve had to create some interesting activations in areas within the Civic Center to get around that,” Azzari said. “There are two bridges that allow you to get past the construction area, but those bridges are going to be covered with posters.”
Construction on the Drinkwater Bridge and Underpass started this past winter.
“We’re trying to make the best of that,” he added.
But let’s circle back and talk about the food.
Two mainstays of the festival include Roka Akor and Sushi Roku.
“Roka Akor is what is one of our diehards. They’re always, always packed,” Azzari said. “But those are two that have been coming to the festival for quite a few years.”
Also on the lineup are Aioli’s Gourmet Burgers, Four Peaks, Pokitrition, Honey Bear’s BBQ, Social Hall, The Crepe Club and more.
Nailing down the food lineup each year is difficult for SLA, as they strive to maintain a balance of established, popular restaurants and up-and-comers to the culinary scene.
“We do our very, very best to find those restaurants that really need to get exposure and try and help them get a boost at our festival,” Azzari said. “Does it work out every time? No, but there are plenty of times when it does work out, and people had the opportunity to really showcase what they have to offer.”
Azzari added that restaurants in the past have contacted SLA to nab a spot at the festival before SLA even gets a chance to go through their list of restaurants.
“We have some restaurants literally who will sign up for the following year at the festival just because they love the spot and love being there,” he said.
Another challenge for SLA is volunteers.
Looking back over a 15-year period, Azzari said the Scottsdale Culinary Festival has never dipped below 300 volunteers and has had as many as 500.
“From a management and logistics standpoint, it’s a massive job by itself, and we have a whole team that deals with our volunteers,” he explained.
That said, “We’re always looking for great volunteers to help with the festival with all our events,” he added.
SLA’s long-term vision for the Scottsdale Culinary Festival involves continuing to raise the bar in terms of entertainment, the quality of participating restaurants and attendance.
SLA’s three-year goal is to grow the event by 6,000 to 8,000 attendees.
“It’s distinctly possible that we definitely can raise the overall attendance,” Azzari said, adding that they hope to make the festival a regional event, not just a state event.
“We’re trying to take it to a new level when it comes to people coming from California, from Nevada, from Utah and Colorado, from New Mexico and bringing the entire region,” he said. “And when something like that happens, everybody benefits: obviously our charity benefits, City of Scottsdale benefits and everybody, in general; It’s a win-win situation.”
If You Go
What: Scottsdale Culinary Festival Where: Civic Center,
7380 E. Second St., Scottsdale
When: April 13, 12-9 p.m.;
April 14, 12-6 p.m.