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Chow Chow Food Festival Hopes to Create Equity Through Pay-What-You-Can Model

The Asheville event highlights the foodways of Southern Appalachia in a new way

Chow Chow Appalachian Pride Brunch.
Stephan Pruitt
Erin Perkins is the editor of Eater Carolinas, covering the food and restaurant scene across North and South Carolina.

First launched in 2019, Asheville food festival Chow Chow is relatively new on the scene but is already evolving as it continues its goals of showcasing and enhancing the foodways of Southern Appalachia. To outsiders, the festival may look similar to previous years, but Chow Chow executive director Melissa Scheiderer says the organization is making strides in terms of its equity and inclusion policies.

“The festival has done a really exceptional job of cultivating a very diverse set of stakeholders and collaborators and curators and presenters,” says Scheiderer, “So we’re continuing to build on that, because we know that setting a really diverse table offers us a much more valuable and rich perspective. But this year we are also very intentionally focused on our economic model in order to advance more equity.”

Chow Chow is reimagining what an equitable festival model can look like by creating more access for small businesses and entrepreneurs in historically marginalized communities. “We’ve significantly increased our budget for honorariums and stipends for presenters,” says Scheiderer, “We know that it’s difficult for those in the food and beverage industry to participate in things like this because they have to take time away from the revenue-generating parts of their business.” Scheiderer says that in typical food festivals, many presenters look back on the cost of attending and realize that it isn’t worth the investment. Chow Chow wants to be able to include more voices from various communities in its festival, so it increased the price they pay to participants (many festivals don’t pay anything).

“Asheville has done a great job with highlighting chefs of all backgrounds,” says Shepard Barbecue pitmaster Brandon Shepard, “Honestly, a lot of festivals say they are striving to become more diverse, but after attending Chow Chow last year, I feel like this event was one of the few who made an actual effort to do so.” Other past participants, like Eater contributor Matt Lardie echo Shepard’s statement, “Sure there are the opportunities to booze and schmooze with the chefs, but the entire festival is really structured around educating folks on Appalachian and general Southern foodways. There are a lot of classes, a lot of guided talks, and honestly a lot of conversations around race, gender, and who gets invited to the table.”

Another equity initiative by the festival is creating programming on a sliding pay scale so that more people can attend. “Our entire festival day on Sunday is a Pay-What-You-Can ticket,” says Scheiderer, “And we’re not doing a downgraded version of the festival that day — it’s the same offerings, same tastes, and same programs. So we’re really, really excited to be able to offer that.”

The upcoming festival weekend, September 7 through September 10, includes a fish fry, celebrations of modern Appalachian cuisine, an okra seminar, butchery demonstrations, and tons of award-winning chefs, farmers, artists, and other food world personalities.