Taste of Vail’s future uncertain
VAIL – A month after the 20th Taste of Vail, the charity organization’s future looks uncertain. The nonprofit drained its reserves to pay off a $42,000 shortfall last year, and the board’s president, Susan Fritz, said she is unsure if the Taste of Vail will continue. Additionally, the organization’s administrator of three years, Amy Oberley, who is Fritz’s daughter, resigned a week after the April food and wine event concluded, saying she’d like to spend more time with her family.
In its 20-year history, the organization has donated more than $200,000 to local charities, according to a statement to the community released by the Taste of Vail board on April 19. Last year, following the 2009 event, the organization didn’t donate any money. According to a profit and loss statement provided to the Vail Daily by the Taste of Vail, the group was more than $42,000 in the red after the 2009 event and down more than $62,000 from the year before. Organizers cite a venue bill that was nearly 2 1/2 times what it had been in years past combined with less ticket revenue and lower-than-usual sponsorship dollars as the main cause for the drop in numbers. Donations had been down the two years prior. In 2003 Taste of Vail donated nearly $20,000 to local charities. In 2005 it donated just less than $30,000. In 2006 that number dropped to just more than $6,000. In 2007, donations totaled $8,500. This year, according to Fritz, preliminary numbers for the event – not all of the bills have come in yet – show revenue down about $35,000 from 2009 despite the board members trying to rein in expenses as much as possible.Fritz declined to share the Taste of Vail’s bank statements with the Vail Daily.”Sponsorships are down,” Fritz said. “And we haven’t gotten half of the money promised, which was $60,000 for this year. Sponsorship dollars was over $100,000 in 2007 and 2008.”Despite that, board member Kevin Nelson, chef and owner of Terra Bistro, said this year looks better than last year.”We’re looking at anywhere from a very small loss to a small gain,” Nelson said. “Probably looking more like break even, which is a huge leap from last year. As far as a preliminary look at it goes, it’s a great and vast improvement that’s promising and encouraging for next year. “The event has been doing well for 20 years now,” he said. “The last two years we’ve had some economic challenges. It’s just a matter of managing and navigating what’s being thrown at us right now.”With the organization’s reserves drained, and at least three of the board’s current five members – including Fritz – saying they’re unsure if they’ll continue as members for a 2011 event, the organization’s future is unclear. While Fritz maintains the event is an asset to the community, she said she isn’t sure what path Taste of Vail should take moving forward.”I think it’s all in flux right now,” she said. “We’ve done everything we can. We’ve done e-mail blasts to people who come to Taste of Vail and said ‘What would you like to see happen?’ We’ve done online surveys to try and figure out how to make it better. I don’t know how to make it better.”
Pollyanna Forster, the owner of eat! drink! cut! and co-owner of dish! in Edwards, was a Taste of Vail board member for a little less than a year, from March 2007 to February 2008, she said. There was a combination of things that led to her stepping down – her schedule was hectic due to running four businesses and volunteering as a Vail Breast Cancer Awareness Group board member.”The other reason is I felt the organization wasn’t growing in the right directions,” she said. “I felt it needed to grow and modernize a bit, get more on the path of what Aspen Food & Wine (Classic) does.”Forster also decided to leave because of the “extreme decrease in donation to charity” and an “inaccessibility to any of the finances,” she said.”Considering how much revenue is brought in, the bottom line that goes to charity isn’t as significant as it should be,” Forster said.During the time Forster served on the board, Adam Baker, of Larkburger, also served on the board for a few months, he said. “We (Baker and Forster) asked to see the financial statements because we’re familiar with ways to make businesses money and ways to cut costs,” Forster said. “We asked Susan (Fritz) repeatedly to get them – at least three to five times. What we were told is this is the amount of money in the bank, and it was always brushed off.”Baker agreed.”I remember asking where the holes were and where we were spending money, and they weren’t interested in talking about that,” Baker said. Fritz maintains that books are “open and available to any board member at any time.” “When you’re a charity like this, I truly believe it should be open to anybody at any time,” she said.Board member Paul Ferzacca, owner of La Tour and ZaccaZa! restaurants, said while Fritz brings financial information to some of the meetings, “it’s certainly not as often as I would like to see them.”Baker left the board before the event took place in 2008, he said, around the same time Forster left.”I just didn’t think I was going to be able to have an impact on the event,” he said. “I felt like the event had lost its way from its original incarnation – to showcase progressive food and wine, and be on the culinary cutting edge. I felt it had become stale.””We were the ones that said the writing is on the wall,” Forster said. “A full calendar year of trying to change things should be enough to be effective, and it wasn’t effective.”
The reputation of Taste of Vail has changed in the past few years, according to at least one board member.”The last few years, I’ve seen more longtime volunteers leave and more vitriol, more talk of theft going on,” said board member Mickey Werner, the manager of Alpine Wine & Spirits. “Whether or not it’s real, perception is reality. If that perception is out there, that’s got to change. We can’t have that perception and continue to put ourselves out there as a premier food-and-wine festival if there’s that talk going around.”Meanwhile Kevin Foley, a Vail town councilman who is the resident manager of The Lifthouse, called the organization’s reputation “decent.””I’ve heard some grumbling from some people that the organization itself is not that organized,” he said. “But that happens with any big event. There are always some people grumbling.”Foley has volunteered for the Taste of Vail for 19 years, organizing the Mountaintop Picnic most years, though he didn’t last month because the picnic fell on Rockies baseball Opening Day, something he “swore he’d never miss again.” Foley said one of the biggest challenges facing the organization is “getting the word out earlier.””We didn’t get any material until a few weeks before the event,” he said. “That hurts the promotional end. Locals know about it, but guests don’t. It just seemed like it was a little late this year, with the posters and things like that.”Fritz said Taste of Vail brochures were distributed in December, “so from Christmas on, they were there.”As Kevin Nelson – a Taste of Vail board member for three years – sees it, lagging ticket sales are the biggest challenge facing the nonprofit.”The event itself is pretty unique compared to most Epicurean events,” Nelson said. “I think it needs to be much more popular outside the Vail Valley than it is to be more successful.”
After spending 10 years as a Taste of Vail board member, Cary Hogan, of Avon Liquor, resigned three years ago. She still volunteers at the festival, and this past year she organized and ran the seminars. “I felt (the board) was dysfunctional,” she said about her decision to step down. “We weren’t making decisions in a real timely and organized fashion. There are boards that work well and some that don’t.”Despite that, Hogan maintains that “the event is fabulous. It showcases the Vail Valley and also the lifestyle.”Amy Phillips, who was the Taste of Vail’s administrator from June 2005 to May 2006 and currently serves on the Avon Town Council, has volunteered for the event for 16 of its 20 years. At last month’s event, she organized the Lamb Cookoff. When she agreed to take over the lamb event in mid-March, a month before the event, only half of the restaurants had been confirmed, something the administrator should have already done, she said.”Taste of Vail is being run like a family business, and based on my experience with nonprofit boards, like family businesses, any nonprofit organization without proper checks and balances will behave like a dysfunctional family,” Phillips said. “I think the real story is if Taste of Vail is going to see another 20 years.””My hope is that they’ll improve the event by bringing new blood to the board,” Hogan said.Regardless of the uncertainty the nonprofit is facing now, Fritz maintains that the Taste of Vail has been very good for Vail and the surrounding community. “I would hope that people would recognize what a valuable thing it is to the community – that no one individual can go out alone and get the kind of recognition that you would get through the Taste of Vail,” Fritz said.”I think it’s one of the best events that happens in Vail,” Ferzacca said. “It’s certainly much more of a positive thing than it could ever be a negative thing.”High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.