Why is the Cheese Curd Festival in East End?

Chamber explains the decision to move from fairgrounds

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ELLSWORTH – At the February Ellsworth Village Board meeting, several residents expressed their desire to see the Cheese Curd Festival move back to the Pierce County Fairgrounds due to safety, crowding, accessibility and other concerns.

The Journal asked the Cheese Curd Festival Committee, which falls under the umbrella of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, to tell us why the CCF is in East End. The committee is in charge of planning and executing the wildly popular June festival. The village itself only issues the permits and licenses that allow the festival to take place.

When did the Cheese Curd Festival move to the East End? 

The Cheese Curd Festival moved to East End Park in 2011.

What prompted the move from the fairgrounds to East End? 

We’re fortunate to have a beautiful fairground in our community. However, the reality of the situation is that it is very expensive to host an event there. Every building, the parking areas, the stands, maintenance—it all costs. In addition, the space isn’t set up for the type of event the Cheese Curd Festival is today. The location doesn’t meet our goals which are to be financially viable and generate revenue for the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, to drive tourism, create exposure for our downtown business district, and support downtown businesses.

The decision to move the festival was initially a financial one. At the time, the committee was having a hard time making the event profitable there. The festival was paying more in fees to use the fairground facilities than the revenue generated from the event. Everyone was walking away with more money than the festival was.

A fundraiser that doesn’t make money isn’t a very good fundraiser. Considering the work and effort that goes into planning and executing the event, there just wasn’t enough of a payout. It didn’t make good business sense and wasn’t sustainable. The committee knew that if something didn’t change, the festival’s days were numbered.

How was the East End chosen as the new site? 

We have this great park in the middle of town and the committee at the time saw the potential and benefits of hosting the festival there. The chamber has always worked hard to have a great collaborative relationship with the Village of Ellsworth. We approached them with the idea, sharing what we felt the event would bring to downtown businesses. They saw the value and have been a supporter and sponsor of the event ever since.

The CCF and chamber really value that partnership and it has led to several successful collaborations that benefit the community including downtown beautification efforts. While it’s the chamber that purchases the hanging baskets and flowers for the stone planters throughout downtown, the brick planters in East End Park, and pays the crew who waters and maintains it daily all season, it’s the Village that provides the equipment and processes their payroll. It’s how Ellsworth can have beautiful downtown flowers that rival our larger community neighbors.    

What are the benefits of having the festival in the East End? 

Initially the site was the more economical option for us. At that location, admission to the event could remain free. We also knew from all we’ve learned through our work with the Department of Tourism and Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation that the location would bring a benefit to downtown and downtown businesses. As an organization that serves business members, it’s our job to create as much benefit for our members as possible. It’s why they choose to be a part of our organizations.

Having the event at the fairgrounds impacted the number of downtown visitors very little. The Creamery didn’t even see a bump in traffic from the event. People drove to the fairground and then left to drive home. If they were stopping, it wasn’t in Ellsworth. Bringing the festival downtown changed all that.

As a community, we also have a development problem in our East End business corridor. Some of the buildings there have fallen into disrepair, there are many empty buildings. We were bleeding businesses and were worried for the ones that remained there. How long could they hold on? We wondered if the festival could be used to bolster the area and spark a revitalization effort.

What has changed to make the festival so successful? How is that success different from its previous location? 

Back in 2014-2015, even with the change in location the festival was profitable but the value proposition in terms of revenue still wasn’t there. We started to talk about how we could make the same amount of money with much less effort. The committee was getting burned out—it was just too much work for what we got out of it.

New leadership came on board at the Chamber in 2016 and that year we took a close look at the event to see if we were leveraging every opportunity. We looked at the event with different eyes and with different goals in mind. We felt the festival as it was had topped out in terms of attendance and revenue.

River Falls’ Bacon Bash kicked off around that time. Here’s a community with no ties to bacon having this big, exciting event, and Ellsworth, the official Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin, can’t grow a cheese curd event? That’s when we had a revelation and instead of thinking of the event as a community festival, we looked at it as a tourism event. How could that change the event and benefit the community?

We dipped our toes in the water and reached into the Twin Cities market. We increased attendance at the event from 2,500 attendees to 5,000, which was exciting and a lightbulb moment for us. We could clearly see what worked and what we needed to do going forward.

We wrote a grant to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism to rebrand and retool the event. Our goal was to become a true food and music festival targeting the regional market, particularly the Twin Cities. The Department of Tourism liked our proposal and awarded the festival a Joint Effort Marketing Grant spread over two years to build a promotional campaign to strengthen the event, deliver a stronger return on investment for festival sponsors, and attract significant tourism dollars to our region.

We learned festival attendees came first and foremost for the cheese curds and they needed to be good. We began repositioning the event by offering more cheese curd foods from professional food vendors, incorporating tasting events, and frying lots of deep-fried cheese curds. That year we doubled event attendance from 2,500 to 5,000.

In 2018, word about the 2017 event had spread. That combined with an awesome marketing message and the perfect weather resulted in attendance of 30,000. Was it overwhelming and did we catch criticism for long lines? Yes, but we also came away with some valuable information and the determination to do it better the next year.

Because of the Department of Tourism grants, we had to collect attendee feedback on the event. The crowds of 2018 gave us a great opportunity to gain new insights from our new target demographic. We had survey takers working the festival, and our regional Department of Tourism representative was on site mingling with event attendees. We learned some interesting things. Despite the obvious challenges with the event that year, our target demographic liked the unique and intimate atmosphere that East End Park offered. They thought the deep-fried cheese curds were as good or better than the Minnesota State Fair. They enjoyed the scenic drive to Ellsworth and thought we were a great daytrip destination. They enjoyed taking part in the tasting experiences and found them unique to our festival. They had specific tastes and wanted to experience Wisconsin and regional specialties, like Wisconsin cheese, beer, hard cider, and wine. They stopped to visit other businesses when in town, including the bars, restaurants, and Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery. They commented again and again on how friendly Ellsworth residents were. Even after waiting in long lines, they loved Ellsworth and said they would come visit again.

We took their feedback to heart and work hard to give them more of what they want each year. The event gets rave reviews and that’s how it became the event it is today. Each year (except for 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic) the event has generated a $2.55 million economic impact for our region.

We’ve learned how to manage the crowds and how to use shuttle services to streamline parking and traffic. The festival is one time a year you can count on Main Street traffic to be at or below the speed limit.

We make modifications and adjustments every year to continuously improve. The festival continues to attract nation-wide media attention as one of the best food festivals in the nation. Last July the Cheese Curd Festival was named “Best Food Festival in Wisconsin” by Love Food and iHeart Radio. That’s pretty special for our community!

What economic benefits does the festival bring to area businesses and nonprofits? 

The CCF gives invaluable exposure to our downtown and entire community. Local businesses tell us that attendees come to the festival and come back to Ellsworth to visit them again. That repeat tourism and spending is important to our local economy. While we want the festival to be something the entire community can come out to enjoy, our goal is to attract tourism dollars from outside the area, particularly from the Twin Cities market.

While a local attendee will spend approximately $17-$98 during the duration of the festival, non-local attendees will spend approximately $40-$153. That’s a 183% increase in spending. It’s also important to note that while approximately $26-$82 is spent at the event, $62-$197 is “spillover spending.” This is the amount festival attendees spend at surrounding businesses. The smart businesses in our community are working hard to capitalize on this opportunity. This is just one tangible example of how we’re leveraging the Cheese Curd Festival to benefit the community.

Another direct impact the event has on the community is through our Non-profit Volunteer Program. The non-profit members of our chamber provide the manpower to make the festival possible. For each hour worked, their non-profit receives $10. If the festival does well, we also pay out a “profit-sharing” bonus to each non-profit. Since the launch of the program in 2016 almost $100,000 has been paid out to these groups. That money goes right back to the community in various ways.

In addition, with every festival, as people see East End busy and vibrant, we’re planting seeds and inspiring development there. For Village residents that are concerned about property tax increases, development is the key to help keep taxes lower for everyone. The community needs development to keep property taxes affordable.

Some people are saying the Creamery would not be part of the festival unless it's in the East End. Is that true and if so, why? 

The Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery is the Cheese Curd Festival’s largest sponsor. They commit thousands in sponsorship dollars and staff time to the event each year, as well as the free use of equipment and discounts on product and supplies. I think it would be very challenging to sell them on continuing that level of commitment if the event location were to change. Especially considering they have experienced how two different event locations have impacted their visitor numbers.

As the Cheese Curd Festival, we’ve been able to prove that not only can we move the needle on sales for businesses during the event, we can attract visitors back to Ellsworth. Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery is a business, and their farm family owners live in our community. They need that ROI to justify their sponsorship each year.

What are some challenges having it in the East End and how are those addressed? Such as ADA accessibility, parking, etc. 

We provide handicapped parking at the festival, although we recognize there will never be enough. As any event planner will tell you, the need will always expand to exceed capacity, which is unfortunate to those who truly rely on those spots. Those who have the ability are encouraged to take the shuttles which will get them closer to the festival entrance than even the closest parking spot. With continuous service, festival guests share that the wait for a shuttle is far shorter than parking and walking to the festival grounds.

We often hear that moving the festival to the fairgrounds would solve the parking issues. That’s simply not the case.

Even events such as Showdown in Curdtown, which attracts 4,500 attendees, has remote parking and uses a shuttle bus system. If it rains, parking on greenspace at the fairgrounds is not permitted, further reducing available parking. This is why we contract with both the Ellsworth Community School District and the fairgrounds for overflow parking. We’re finding more and more festival attendees are taking advantage of the festival’s continuous shuttle bus service.

As for the accessibility of the East End business district and East End Park, the challenges don’t exist just during the festival, they are there every day, 365 days a year. With ongoing success of the festival, our goal is to continue to work with the Village to help plan and fund upgrades, including accessibility improvements, to benefit the community all year. We have big dreams. A comprehensive parks plan is on the Village’s schedule, and we look forward to taking part in the planning process.

What about festival safety?

As with any event, safety is a primary concern. We have a near perfect safety record, which is difficult to improve upon, but we continue to plan for every inevitability regardless. Pinched fingers, a scraped knee, and similar, are the extent of the injuries in the past 21 years.

Plans are in place, and should a fire or other emergency occur, immediate access is available to equipment and personnel. We do what is humanly possible to prepare for every emergency and conduct a post-event assessment after each festival to review several aspects of the event, including safety. Most safety concerns are not location specific or specific to just the days of the festival. They could happen at any location or at any time, festival or not.

How have East End residents responded? 

We appreciate the cooperation of the East End residents and businesses; the majority work well with us and support what the festival brings to our community. It’s a few days inconvenience for them, but as they visit other communities, they see other downtown events taking place. It’s a common occurrence and fulfills an important economic development role for downtowns of all sizes.

We’ve looked at, and sometimes have attended, long-running downtown events like Pumpkin Fest in downtown Thorp (25 years), Beef-A-Rama in downtown Minocqua (50 years), St. Paul's Grand Old Day (50 years), Lumberjack Days in downtown Stillwater (88 years), and many other favorite regional downtown events to learn their best practices. All well-run and very fun events. We’re proud to say that we’re doing very well in comparison. We can throw one heck of a cheese curd party!

Planning is already underway for the 2023 Cheese Curd Festival. Save the date for Friday, June 23, and Saturday, June 24. Once again the event will take place in Ellsworth’s East End Park and business district. More information can be found at cheesecurdfestival.com. Interested local non-profit organizations interested in the festival’s Non-profit Volunteer Fundraising Program can find more information under the “Participate” tab.

Cheese Curd Festival, East End Park, East End, Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce, Ellsworth, Wisconsin