“The biggest difference between the New York and the South Beach events is that New York has 120 events and Miami has 60 mostly because of size.”
Two short weeks before the 2013 Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival, Lee brian schrager, Southern Wine & Spirits of America Vice President of Corporate Communications and National Events, is calm and collected. Schrager, who is the festival’s Founder and Director has his work done, details planned and executed for six months. Now, he’s well into planning the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival, which began in 2008. “I’m sure everyone would think I’m here working out details, figuring out the Tribute Dinner, but South Beach is done,” says Schrager. “We have a great line-up, great talent and there is nothing more I can do at this point. I visualize it and have other people to produce it. Now, I’m onto the next thing; I’ve got to work on getting that New York program out.”
Schrager explains, “The biggest difference between the New York and the South Beach events is that New York has 120 events and Miami has 60 mostly because of size.” The programming is trickier for the NYCWFF due to the difficulty of finding large venues at appropriate costs, which keeps the profile of the two events slightly different. “We do a lot of small, boutique dinners in New York, although we do also have a Burger Bash and it’s big,” says Schrager of the NYCWFF .
But as popular as it is, there is a limit, and the SOBEWFF has finally leveled off after exponential growth year after year. Schrager agrees, “I think we’ve kind of maxed out the number of people we can have at the events and the number of events we can do. But, we always switch it up by dropping events and adding new ones.”
The change-up keeps things fresh while they are trying to make the next Burger Bash, but hitting upon the zeitgeist isn’t easy. “The factors are the talent, the venue, the timing, and most importantly, the dish. You could have a great name chef and an event that nobody is interested in. It’s about the dish. Clearly the Burger Bash is hit. Would it have been as popular without Rachel Ray? I don’t know, but I still think it would have been popular.”
When it comes to new events, Schrager says he is limited only by his own creativity. “Anything that I’ve wanted to do I’ve tried to do, or done.” This year, Southern Kitchen Brunch with Trisha Yearwood, the Celebrity Chef Golf Tournament and The Oyster Bash with Ming Tsai are all interesting new additions to the festival.
As involved as Schrager is with the festivals, as Founder and Director, it’s easy to forget that that is just one hat he wears at Southern Wine & Spirits. His title and primary line of work falls under handling national communications and special events for the company across 35 states. As the host of the event, the brands that Southern Wine & Spirits carry are fully integrated into the event providing amazing branding opportunities.
Schrager has quite a few other interests as well, including collecting beautifully crafted timepieces by brands like Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Ulysse Nardin.
But while the festival provides branding opportunities for sponsors, it provides traveling opportunities for attendees. And both festivals are timed for peak season. Selling Miami in February to New Yorkers is as easy a sell as New York in October to Miamians, at the end of the hot, rainy season.
As we speak, New York has just been pelted with a serious snowstorm; something Schrager knows from experience will lead to “massive ticket sales.” “Everyone is looking to get out of Dodge,” he says. But the dollar signs he sees from ticket sales will all go to the Florida International University’s culinary program. “It’s 100% not-forprofit and it has been since day one,” says Schrager of the festival. Thus far, the festival has raised $17 million for the university, with $2 million coming from 2012 revenues, which has the added benefit of making tickets to the events tax deductible. “The majority of this money is going towards the new teaching restaurant school.” Slated to open this spring, the school is state-of-the-art.
Because of the SOBEWFF , Schrager has become a bit of a rock star not just in Miami, but in the entire food world. The celebrity chefs he rubs shoulders with aren’t just names in his Rolodex, but good friends as well. But even as he is at the epicenter of Miami’s food world – and beyond, Schrager remains slightly effusive. “You know, I think it’s nice to be recognized for something that you’ve been part of creating that raises money for a good cause and people enjoy. I think that’s what I can say about that,” he says.
And now he’s crossing over with a foodthemed movie program he created for the 2013 Miami International Film Festival. And the timing is tricky as his program begins March 3, immediately following the SOBEWFF . In a perfect example of the cyclical nature of relationships in life and business, the festival’s Executive Director, Jaie Laplante, formerly worked for Schrager at SOBEWFF . “He was our Associate Director, and always a film buff. In fact, we both love film and food.” To prepare his program, Schrager watched dozens of films to narrow it down to four, which includes Why Did You Leave (Por Que Voce Partiu?), a Brazilian film about three French Haute Cuisine chefs that will have it’s North American premiere at the film festival.
Just as Art Basel has jumpstarted Miami’s local art scene, the South Beach Food and Wine Festival has enriched the local food scene since its inception in 2002. “Miami has grown so much over the last few years, we’ve got a very vibrant, young, exciting food scene here,” says Schrager. “10 years ago, we spent time trying to figure out where we could eat dinner because there was no place good, and now we spend time figuring it out because there are so many good options. I don’t think we’re missing anything here.”
And he would know, after working for the InterContinental Hotels for 17 years, and working with Southern Wine & Spirits since 2000, Schrager has lived and worked all over the country, which might be why he prefers to stay close to his Design District home for his day-to-day dining. “I love to walk over to the new MC Kitchen, Mandolin. I’m at Buena Vista Deli every weekend, and I’m very excited about Michael Schwartz’s new restaurant.”
Aside from food and film, Schrager has quite a few other interests as well, including collecting beautifully crafted timepieces by brands like Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Ulysse Nardin. Schrager is also a voracious reader and global traveler. Having just returned from Thailand and planning a Galapagos expedition in May, Schrager gets around. And he plays favorites when seeking accommodations favoring Mandarin Oriental Hotels, Taj and Aman properties when they are available. “I also love the Como Group, I think they’re fantastic,” he says. Detective novels and good biographies, which he has a penchant for, prove to be perfect take-alongs for his far-flung adventures.