7 Questions for South Beach Wine & Food Festival Founder Lee Brian Schrager

One of the most iconic food festivals in the nation is coming up fast, as South Beach Wine & Food Festival gears up for its 18th year February 20-24. Since its inception, the festival has ballooned to become a five-day, food-filled spree filled with world-class chefs and events well beyond the bounds of South Beach, Miami. As the event continues to grow and evolve, we spoke with festival founder and director Lee Brian Schrager (he also serves as senior vice president of communications and corporate social responsibility for Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits) about this year’s lineup, its charitable philosophy and what attendees can look forward to in 2019 and years to come.

Money Inc: How did the “EAT. DRINK. EDUCATE” philosophy first take shape, and how did you come up with the idea of a food festival to support it?
Lee Brian Schrager: The philosophy is the very essence on which the Festival was created, which started as a one-day wine tasting fundraiser event for FIU in its beginning stages. More about the Festival’s history and early years can be found here (https://sobewff.org/about/about-us/), but the idea really evolved after I attended the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen with my friends Steven and Barbara Raichlen for my 40th birthday. The tagline “EAT. DRINK. EDUCATE.” is something we actively added to our logo a couple of years ago to continue to reinforce this message.

Money Inc: Over the years, what have been some of the most significant challenges in running and growing a food festival?
Lee Brian Schrager: Today’s rapid pace makes it slightly more challenging to determine what might appeal to fans five or six months from now—trends and hot topics can certainly change from the time we pull a program together over the summer, unveil it in September and put tickets on sale in October, and then the actual Festival in February. We try to find that balance of coming up with new event ideas that are fresh and trendy, but also have some staying power with consumers. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.

Money Inc: What are some key factors that you cite as pivotal contributors to the festival’s continued success?
Lee Brian Schrager: In addition to February being a prime time for everyone to want to hit the beach, I’ve long noted that this is a place where you can see Michelin-starred talent one moment and television and pop culture personalities the next. It brings together a great mix of popular lifestyle talent and world-renowned chefs to one place.

Money Inc: What have been the most successful and crowd-pleasing events or mainstays?
Lee Brian Schrager: Our signature events, as we call them, including the ones that started it all—the Goya Foods’ Grand Tasting Village and annual Tribute Dinner (this year honoring Nancy Silverton and Rhonda Carano)—truly remain fan-favorites today. Our popular barbecue event, previously known as the BubbleQ® in the Festival’s first decade, has evolved over the years, this year hosted by Guy Fieri on February 23; and our Burger Bash® (which started at the 2007 Festival) is our friendly, now quite iconic, competition amongst chefs. Wine Spectator’s Best of the Best at the Fontainebleau is always a crowd-pleaser for those looking for a slightly more luxurious tasting experience.

Money Inc: In addition to chefs, how do you go about attracting talent from TV and music to participate? How do you integrate them into a food festival like this?
Lee Brian Schrager: So many talent from a variety of industries have taken an interest in food. There are a plethora of musicians, actors/actresses, etc. who have released cookbooks or now have shows on Food Network. I’ve long said that the birth of the Food Network some 25+ years ago made cooking more mainstream in popularity, and now professionals and icons from other genres are joining in on the action. As they’ve grown, so has our roster of talent.

Money Inc: What are some of the new festival additions this year, and why are you excited about them?
Lee Brian Schrager: With 100+ events, there’s something special that I’m looking forward to about each and every one. But a couple of things I think fans will really take to this year include performances by Cassadee Pope and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real at the Coca-Cola Beachside BBQ hosted by Guy Fieri, and the return of The David Grutman Experience, this year hosted by Ludacris and a featured set by Cedric Gervais, at the Goya Foods’ Grand Tasting Village on February 24. Additionally, our Tribute Dinner is honoring two incredibly accomplished female pioneers in the food and beverage industry on February 23 at Loews Miami Beach, and our featured CRAVE Greater Fort Lauderdale Series presented by Capital One is home to the Festival’s first-ever Drag Brunch, held in collaboration with the team at PRIDE Fort Lauderdale, hosted by nationally recognized radio personality Elvis Duran and his fiancée Alex Carr.

Money Inc: In the future, what would you like to add to the festival?
Lee Brian Schrager: We are always open to hearing new ideas, and try to keep things fresh each year. I think we will continue to integrate high-energy musical acts into our events, and keep an eye on the continuous ebb and flow of trends in the food, beverage and hospitality industries.

All photos courtesy of South Beach Wine & Food Festival

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