Is the Arizona Taco Festival, now in its third year, turning into a big deal?
Last year, the festival landed on the USA Today’s list of “10 Great Places to Feast at a Festival.” This year, the event moves to much bigger digs (from the Scottsdale Waterfront to Salt River Fields) and expands from one day to two days — October 20th and 21st.
Resident Taco Spirit Guide and event co-founder David Tyda says he’s gearing up for 20,000 people day one and 15,000 people day two. Or at least that’s how many people he’s hoping will come eat 140,000+ tacos from 50+ teams. Food trucks (Aji) to fast food restaurants (Rubio’s) to fine dining establishments (Crudo), are competing for a chunk of the weekend’s $10,000 prize purse.
We sat down with Tyda to talk about what it takes to organize such a mammoth production.
“It takes a certain level of insanity,” Tyda said.
Pen & Fork: No seriously, how long does it take you to plan and pull off a festival of this magnitude?
Tyda: Rick [Phillips, Tyda’s business partner] and I are both media people. Coming from the magazine world, you can give us all year to work on this project and we’ll wait until the last two weeks to get going. Oh, we’ll think about it all year, we’ll put the energy out there, and we’re talking about it, but we really don’t do anything about it until the last minute. That’s one of the reasons this move to Salt River Fields makes so much sense. These guys do events all the time. They’ve got this whole infrastructure of professionals that know how to execute and they help keep us on our toes.
P&F: So they’re operational people and you’re buzz people.
Tyda: Something like that. We don’t know how to throw an event. [He laughs. Tyda & Phillips own Affordable Food Festivals, which not only produces the AZ Taco Festival but also the AZ Barbecue Festival and others.] In all honestly, we’ve gotten better at making it 3 or 4 months of good, hard effort, but it’s not the only thing we do. We [produce] Alliance Beverage’s magazine Sips, run EaterAZ.com, which is a daily food blog, we do some marketing for Sanctuary resort, and I do freelance writing.
P&F: So what are you doing the day of the event?
Tyda: It’s been an evolution since our first taco festival. The only thing I did the first year was pick up trash and try to figure out how the hell to restart a generator. Year two my goal was simply to have a taco. I wanted to be able to eat just one taco. I ended up with about an hour where I wasn’t putting out fires and I actually ate a taco and had a beer. This year I want to just enjoy the event — for the whole day. I want to try to get to as many booths as possible and actually interact with some of the guests.
P&F: Be a real host you mean?
Tyda: Exactly. When I was picking up trash at the first festival, two guys next to me were saying, “this is the coolest thing we’ve ever seen.” They had come in from out of town and that fascinates me. There are now people flying in from New York to eat tacos! It’s crazy! This is starting to become a national event, the very thing we wanted — a national tourism draw for Arizona.
P&F: What’s the deal with the National Taco Association?
Tyda: No one had ever thrown a taco festival before, and we wanted one with truly blind, anonymous and fair judging. We were inspired by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), which sanctions the Arizona Barbecue Festival and oversees the judging. So we created the National Taco Association (NTA) as the judging mechanism. We wrote the rules and had a class to train judges. We created the competition turn-in box for each category. Teams make six identical tacos in an unmarked box, there’s a judging moderator who delivers the six tacos to six judges who eat the tacos at the same time and score them, and the scores are averaged. That’s the whole system, and what we did originally.
P&F: Sounds like a serious competition.
Tyda: Yeah, but it’s different than the BBQ festival. We started looking at the people at the [taco] festival. It turns out, there’s this whole lifestyle, sort of the way Hawaii markets itself with “aloha.” The NTA is the expression of taco spirit. You know, Coronas in the sand, eating tacos with your hands, casual food, good times, and then the flip side of that is where the taco comes from — Mexico. Mexican culture adds heritage. It’s the barrio, it’s low-riders, it’s Silvana [Salcido Esparza], and so we’ve been toying with the idea of “from beach to barrio.” That seems to be the two lifestyles that surround eating tacos: you’re either on vacation or you’re exploring Mexico City and stopping at a taco cart.
P&F: So, people aren’t as serious about eating a taco as they are about BBQ?
Tyda: Yeah, so competing in a BBQ contest is difficult because the judges are looking for one very specific thing. They’ve been trained to look for that one thing in brisket or pulled pork. You have to nail that. Presentation is a very low percentage of the overall score. For tacos, we make presentation 40%. We tell teams they can decorate the inside of their [competition] box because we want them to show their taco spirit in the box.
P&F: What’s in it for the teams who compete?
Tyda: We’re awarding $5,000 a day [across various categories] and we split the $2 taco price with the teams. This isn’t just a donation festival like so many. So they’re getting $1 back on each taco they sell. It helps cover the food costs. Let’s say a team sells 4,000 tacos and then wins a couple thousand bucks in the competition. They’re walking away with some dough.
P&F: What does it cost the general public to get in?
P&F: Wait, wasn’t it $10 last year?
Tyda: Yeah, but we’ve upgraded the location and this year there’s free parking. Oh, and lots of shade — lots and lots of shade. So it’s $2 more but we are also giving you more. But, if you wear a sombrero, you get in for $6. We’re actually losing money on the guy wearing the sombrero, but hey, it’s taco spirit. You can’t put a price on taco spirit.
More information about the Festival: