October days may get chilly, but the annual Taste of Atlanta food festival promises to warm up the palate. Today, as excitement builds for the 2014 event taking place October 24 – 26, we revisit our interview with festival founder Dale DeSena.
Dale DeSena savors the Atlanta food and restaurant scene … so much so, she cooked up an entire festival to celebrate it. She developed Taste of Atlanta, and it has evolved beyond the typical food festival into a “must visit” destination. Realizing her dream, Dale and her team present Taste of Atlanta as a weekend synopsis of the entire local culinary experience, and we are ALL hungry for another helping!
Festivals are your forté for sure — from Music Midtown to Atlanta Dogwood and many more. How did you get started in large-scale event planning?
I started my career with a well-known advertising agency, moved into sales with a local business publication and then started a custom publishing firm. My first custom magazine was the Chastain Park Amphitheatre program, which I published for Alex Cooley and Peter Conlon for 12 years. From there, they asked me to join their Music Midtown team to sell the sponsorships and create the poster, program and brochure designs, which I did for 10 years.
Over the years, I have worked with more than 10 prominent Atlanta festivals and artistic venues, including Atlanta Dogwood Festival, Atlanta Arts Festival and Alliance Theatre, and I have loved them all! Continuing this line of work seemed like a logical path that would be both exciting and fulfilling for me.
When did you decide to make food the center of attention and start to generate ideas for Taste of Atlanta?
I have always had a deep passion for food. After being involved with so many different kinds of festivals, I decided I wanted to create a food festival unlike anything Atlanta had ever seen – or tasted – before. My goal was to not only showcase the city’s growing restaurant scene, but to also educate guests with live cooking demonstrations and seminars where they could learn cooking tips from professional chefs to recreate in their own kitchens. So, 13 years ago, I made my dream a reality, and we’ve been dishing out Taste of Atlanta every year since.
What were the greatest challenges to getting this whole thing up and running?
We have had significant growth over the years, so the greatest challenge has been finding a large enough venue that can grow with us. We’re thrilled to be back in Midtown at Tech Square again this year! It’s an incredibly convenient location for Taste of Atlanta – we have phenomenal parking facilities, as well as a Marta station just two blocks from the festival.
As you’ve watched Taste of Atlanta grow and develop over these dozen years, what has most surprised you?
I have been surprised by how the restaurants, chefs, my staff and I continue to have a fantastic time planning Taste — even after all these years! We all love coming up with fresh, new programming ideas each year to make sure we continue to produce Atlanta’s premier food festival. It was also a huge thrill to be named by Oprah magazine as a Top Festival Worth the Trip.
Which part of the festival planning do you most anticipate each year?
Developing successful marketing strategies with all of our partners — including restaurants, traditional media, social media and sponsors — is always one of my favorite parts of the planning process. Most of our partners sign on again each year, because we customize each agreement. In fact, Coca-Cola has been with us the entire time! I am so appreciative for all the help and support we receive from the entire Atlanta community. Taste is proud to create win/win relationships.
Producing a food festival of this magnitude and caliber gives you a special relationship with the Atlanta restaurant community. What changes have you noticed shaking up the scene?
The foundation of Taste of Atlanta has always been to “turn our tasters into diners,” and I have had the pleasure of watching many entrepreneurial chefs open their own restaurants. The Atlanta dining scene has transformed so much over the past decade – more chef-driven restaurants, more patios, more local fresh products and more ambitious menu items. I am so honored to be a part of the Atlanta restaurant community and to play a role in helping to establish the city as the food capital of the South.
Who do you consider to be your mentor(s), and what’s the best advice you’ve received?
I have had several mentors over the years. Local PR and marketing expert Claudia Patton, whose business The Headline Group was purchased by local PR powerhouse Edelman, taught me early on to hold my head high and persevere as a female business owner. Alex Cooley and Peter Conlon told me to dream big, and I truly believe that you can create the empire of your choice! I live by two pieces of advice. The first is to be a friend-raiser. People do business with people they enjoy, and I love meeting new people and working with a team of smart, enthusiastic people. Second, if you do what you’ve always done, then you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. I thrive on creating new ideas and new experiences – keeping it fresh helps to keep it interesting!
Tell us how you start your day and your tips for multitasking to make deadlines.
I am on morning carpool duty bright and early! This is an exciting part of my day when I get to hear what the kids are thinking. I like to think I am a cool mom. To keep organized, I am the queen of list making. My life is made up of many lists, and I try to delegate my tasks. When I do, that’s a great feeling.
So, are you a big at-home chef, or do you eat out most of the time?
Lucky me, my family prefers to eat at home. I guess they like my cooking! Our favorites are recipes off the grill and Italian and Jewish meals. My motto is to keep it simple, seasonal and flavorful. As for me, I enjoy eating out with no cleanup. I am always searching for the best crab cakes. Yum!
What’s the most exotic/adventurous food you’ve ever tried?
In 2007, I convinced Food Network to let me help create the Iron Chef America Atlanta Challenge. Four Atlanta chefs competed, and Linton Hopkins won. He then got to compete against Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in New York. The night before the competition, I went to dinner with Linton and his sous chefs at WD – 50. What an experience! I can’t tell you what I ate, but it was the most exotic meal I have ever had!
Obviously, you’ve got this whole party-planning thing down, but I’m guessing there’ve been some bombs to diffuse. What’s the biggest entertaining disaster you’ve ever had to handle?
When planning big events, you have to be prepared for everything. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the week of Taste of Atlanta. We triple-bolted the tents to the Lenox parking lots in preparation for the huge wind gusts. The storms came, but the weather gods must have been smiling on us – when our gates opened that Friday night, we had blue skies and sunshine!
How do you relax? What would we find you doing in your downtime, and where are your favorite hangouts?
I relax by reading anything I can get my hands on, especially magazines. My husband calls me a magazine-aholic. For me, true bliss is traveling to a white, sandy beach with a pile of magazines and sipping amazing cocktails. My favorite hangouts are casual spots that serve seafood and cold adult beverages.
If you could have a dinner party and include anyone — living or dead — who would you invite?
I would love to have dinner one more time with my dad, my Nana (who are both in heaven) and my immediate family. Many great memories are from the family dinner table.
Other than faith, family and friends, what are three things you couldn’t live without?
That’s an easy one:
- My iPhone
- The beach and …
- Diet Coke
Thanks for chatting with us, Dale. Don’t miss your opportunity to sample the fruits of her labor at Taste of Atlanta October 24-26 down at Tech Square. Get your tickets online at tasteofatlanta.com, or at a variety of local retailers, including Whole Foods Market.
Our vibrant shots of Dale come courtesy of CatMax Photography. Thanks, Cat!