Behind the Scenes at Jazz Fest: the perspective of a first time food vendor

Group of Fest goers watching the Jazz and Heritage stage holding a cup of tea Photo by Nick Boulet

Story by Jacklyn Leo, freshman at Lusher Charter High School

Most Jazz Fest stories are about the best music, shop, or food to experience, but one thing people tend to overlook is the people working the booths. When you go to Jazz Fest all you have to do is walk up to the stand, hand the vendor a five, and then you have your drink. But there is a lot more to it than that. There is an entire community connected through the shared trait of making sure Jazz Fest runs smoothly.

One of the more popular booths is the Sunshine Concessions stand, a tea booth that has been selling at Jazz Fest since 1977. There are three stands scattered around the grounds, but the biggest is in food area two. The booth sells thousands of cups a day and staffs around 20 employees, performing one of three jobs: ice scooper, cup filler, or money taker. Everyone is working from when to the gates open to when the last fest goer leaves the gate.

It sounds pretty simple. Three jobs, working in an assembly line to make sure everyone at Jazz Fest has a good time. In fact it is actually quite a simple and slow job. Easy money. Until rush hour starts. 6 types of tea, 18 rows, at least three cups per row should be filled at any time. It’s like a video game. By the end of the day you waddle out of the booth with stiff legs and sore shoulders. But in the end, it’s all worth it to please the fest goers. Seeing the smile on their faces after taking a long sip of ice cold tea on a steaming hot day, especially if they traveled far for the experience, makes it worthwhile.

In the same way many tourists visit New Orleans to experience the food and music, some vendors come from out of state to give these tourists a great experience. They hail from places like Illinois to Arizona. A lot of the out of town caterers have family in the city, so they’ll stay with siblings and cousins, but for those who don’t, New Orleans hotels and personal trailers provide shelter. Some vendors even sleep on site in the rooms above the barn, and many also stay up late preparing the food for the following day.

Tea from the Sunshine Concessions stand. Top: Regular, Bottom Left: Mandarin Orange Herbal, Bottom Right: Rose Mint Herbal.
From New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival website

While working is an important part of working at Jazz Fest, the most important part is that everyone has fun, for fest goers and vendors alike. Even the cleanup crew, who usually stop by to pick up a gallon of tea on the house, enjoy themselves. When your shift is over and the late workers take over, you can wander around the grounds watching shows and experiencing everything going on. Most people even eat dinner on the grounds when they’re finished working. It’s almost like a village. You work there, you play there, and you eat there.

There are a lot of great things about Jazz Fest, but the best part is the community. While working in close proximity to everyone else in the booth, you become friends. You have to be close if you doing your job correctly depends on the people behind you and in front of you cooperating. But the community isn’t just in your booth, it’s with other booths too. On hot days, the food booths drop by and offer their finest platter in exchange for a cup of cold refreshing tea. Occasionally, the security even drop by to say hi and eat their food under our tents.

While all that is fun, something great about this experience is that I learned something. Working at a festival, or working in general, shows you the side of the service industry you can’t usually see. When we go to festivals we tend to just take our drinks and watch the shows without thinking about who is on the other side or how much effort they put into making our time and money worth it. But the most important thing I got out of Jazz Fest was the value of work, and 20 dollars in tips.