Young and old, near and far, the Highlands Food & Wine Festival has grown into a premier event for all things food, wine, and music. The 4-day festival, which coincides with the breathtaking views of taking in the mountains during the fall season, features top chefs and beverage partners from across the Southeast each November.
Casey Reid, Founder of Eleven Events, which produces the festival, said work for the 2022 festival kicked off as early as January when negotiations with various talents first began. From January through March, Reid and her team worked on talent acquisition for music, vendors, and of course, the top chefs and beverages purveyors in the industry, in order to meet the event deadline of announcing this year’s festival lineup by May.
Reid said originally the Highlands Food & Wine Festival was developed as a way to bring visitors to Highlands during the “shoulder-season.” Historically a seasonal resort, the town of Highlands experienced a sharp drop-off in tourism in October. Events such as a Culinary Weekend, hosted by the Highlands Chamber, had been planned in years prior to extend the Fall and Winter tourism season. However, it still wasn’t quite enough to ensure retail, hotels, and restaurants could remain operational after the busy summer months. That’s when Highlands Food & Wine Festival was born. Building on the foundation laid by the Highlands Chamber of Commerce, a 501c3 called Highlands Festivals Inc., led by a board of local Highlands shareholders, and Eleven Events, kept the luxury experience associated with the Culinary Weekend and paired it with music and exclusive opportunities that extended the life of the small Western North Carolina resort town.
“Everyone feels like a VIP,” Reid said. “Everything we work to create keeps that in mind, which is partly why Highlands has grown over the years to really be a year-round tourist destination.”
All summer Reid and her team work to line up the top chefs in the industry — working to book their contracts, secure the needs for their sets, and handle the logistics of getting not only the chefs — but the equipment needed to the Plateau. On average, the festival brings in 10 to 15 chefs per event to ensure a lot of culinary talent and variety. To get that done, Eleven Events coordinates and staffs a large team of professionals to make the 4-day festival possible.
“We need anywhere from 30-40 people to work the event to handle everything from set up and production to serving and bartending,” said Reid. “A lot of the people we first hired come back to work the event each year, which really adds a personal touch, as our guests see familiar faces when they arrive.”
In May 2022, festival organizers announced the dates and musical lineup for this year’s event — with headliner Old Crow Medicine Show being a welcomed new addition. Tickets went on sale beginning in June, and like years prior, as quickly as the tickets were available for purchase — they were sold out.
While music isn’t marketed as a main attraction for the festival, with a greater emphasis put on the food and wine, Reid said that the music component has helped to grow the festival brand and introduce new fans to the annual celebration.
“Over the years we have booked all genres of music — Bluegrass, Americana, Alternative Rock, Gospel— you never really know who is going to come,” said Reid. “The music is a supplement to the food and wine experience, and because music is the great communicator, we have had people come for the music and then discovered everything else the festival has to offer. If they didn’t already know, they came for what they thought was going to be a great weekend of music, but then discovered Highlands.”
In fact, because music has grown to become such a huge part of the festival, Highlands Festivals, Inc. launched a sister-event called Bear Shadow, a Spring music-centered festival held throughout the Town and in neighboring Scaly Mountain, NC. Because many of the guests overlap with the two festivals, this year Reid noted that the full musical talent lineup for Bear Shadow is going to be announced exclusively at the Highlands Food & Wine Festival. With prior year data tracking guests attending the festivals from as far away as Alaska, and from around 40 states, Reid said the overall impact on the Highlands community, both economic and in terms of general exposure, has been tremendous.
Both the Highlands Food & Wine Festival and Bear Shadow not only offer an economic boost, selling out hotels and requiring wait lists at local restaurants, Reid said it is also important to ensure a philanthropic arm of the festivals. Over the last few years, the Highlands Food & Wine Festival has provided donations to the Highlands Food Pantry and other local non-profits.
To establish something long-term and impactful for the Highlands community, Highlands Festivals Inc. launched a Culinary Endowment in honor of Louis Osteen to provide scholarships for students pursuing careers in the culinary arts — giving preference to Macon County students. The Endowment was named in honor of the James Beard Award-winning Chef Louis Osteen, who retired to Highlands after a culinary career that elevated and really shaped Southern cuisine. Osteen died in his Highlands, NC home in 2019 after a long battle with liver cancer.
This year’s festival will also benefit the Friends of Founders Park, as Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders park has served as a gracious host for the festival since its inception in 2016.
Reid said that with a little over a month left until the festival kicks off in Highlands, Eleven Events is working to finalize site plans, rental confirmation, and ensuring the transition to new venues for this year’s festival will be smooth. To ensure a fresh experience, Reid said things will be moved around and rearranged, and those details are all being finalized now.
To learn more about the festival, visit https://highlandsfoodandwine.com