05/29/2012 10:48 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

Something About Brooklyn's GoogaMooga Food Fest Gives Me Heartburn

I've got the GoogaMooga blues.

It's over a week since the so-called Great GoogaMooga Festival, a two-day extravaganza promoted as a "celebration" of food, capitalizing on Brooklyn's new-found identity as the locavore, artisanal, small-batch, food inventive epicenter of already epicurean New York.

But here's what's still stuck in my craw -- and it's not Crawfish Monica, either, it's a policy question:

Should for-profit businesses be invited into New York's public parks for events that are nominally free and open to the public -- but that are functionally not really free and accessible to every member of the public?

I love the Philharmonic and first day of Little League parade and Celebrate Brooklyn! and First Amendment activities held in New York's parks.

Most such events are sponsored by non-profits. GoogaMooga was organized by Manhattan-based Superfly, an event and marketing outfit that also runs Tennessee's blockbuster Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Golden Gate Park's Outside Lands Festival, and a music fest piggybacked atop New Orleans' annual and acclaimed JazzFest. They're pros. Of course, the Big Apple beckons.

And GoogaMooga sounded great, made for someone hungry as a bear coming out of hibernation: 73 restaurants, 150 wines, 27 breweries, plus 17 musical performances on two stages.

But it was a sleight of hand to say this was a public festival, because this foodie fantasia wasn't really open to Brooklyn's broad masses.

This was a party that, even if one were lucky enough to score free online tickets (sold out within a day), required deep pockets to enjoy. Though there was music, the billed attraction was food -- but pricey food. Small chicken sandwiches sold for $10, a glass of wine for $10, and VIP tickets sold at $275.

Attendee demographics were skewed accordingly. Departing the Googa bubble and returning to everyday Prospect Park felt like stepping inside the subway after leaving a Broadway show: gone the comforting insularity of class. The gorgeous diversity of Brooklyn's parkgoers -- many people of color, old people sitting on benches, a Babel of languages -- looked and sounded different from the mostly white Gen X and Y GoogaMooga crowd.

By definition, a marketing operation targets its market, and that target is never "the public at large." So the core question is, if private companies bring mass events to public parks to build their for-profit brand, which by definition means they are targeting a specific demographic, then what price the fudging on the word "public?"

"Events such as this are a valuable source of revenue for the Alliance," remarked Emily Lloyd, President of the Prospect Park Alliance, which pays for two-thirds of the day-to-day operational costs for Prospect Park.

Exactly how much revenue GoogaMooga might, or has, returned to Prospect Park, or to Brooklyn, is, at the moment either unknown or a well-guarded secret.

Barking Up the Wrong Alley

And then there's the question of who's in, and who's out.

Punditry about GoogaMooga has focused not on the issue of those excluded but on vexing consumer and vendor experiences of those included in the food bash.

On opening day, the 40,000 capacity, million-dollar production was slapped in the face with a cream pie of criticism about long lines and food shortages, unannounced lack of cell phone service, and high prices. Business Insider ran an article titled, "For Restaurants, The Great GoogaMooga Was Basically A War Zone." These are the woes of those who participated.

But there's a deeper rub -- and not of the organic-turmeric-on-pork-roast variety.

The organizers, with a Facebook-like "lets-have-have-fun-and-make-a-ton-of-money -too" attitude, promoted a vision of the festival as a place where "everyday food lovers can discover and share amazing new tastes, and where the right slice of pizza can be as treasured/praiseworthy as four-star fois-gras."

There's nothin' "everyday" about $8 coconut water.

The hyped claim to offering "such an inclusive feel that it will appeal to everyone who eats" doesn't go down well in a borough where half a million people depend on emergency food, and, according to NYC poverty data, one in five live below the poverty line, the majority of whom are children.

Masses of offline (translation: poor, elderly, non-English speaking) citizens weren't aware of, and couldn't have printed out tickets to the festival.

Scratching One Another's Backs: You Build My Brand, I'll Build Yours

Googa Mooga is all about branding. And -- eureka! -- Brooklyn's rapid transformation into a major tourist attraction is also about branding.

Googa Mooga and Brooklyn... you build my brand, and I'll build yours.

This was Superfly's first major food festival. And not their last, given the stage set-like rows of food kiosks (easily broken down for re-use), reliance on top talent and spin doctors, and wondrous array of celeb chefs. No expense was spared, it seemed, to create, no, to curate, a classy carney experience. With pitch-perfect (and probably focus-group vetted) use of such Gen X and Y buzzwords as "community," "creativity," "culture," and "fun," GoogaMooga's really about one thing: building a brand among a certain demographic.

Upmarket festivals could help Brooklyn's upwardly mobile migration toward the higher echelons of American tourism. And lets face it, the annual Nathan's Famous July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island doesn't quite cut the mustard.

GoogaMooga, like Barclays Center, represents a transformative level of professional, for-profit entertainment that's arriving in Brooklyn. (Barclays Center, however, makes no bones about offering public benefit; au contraire.)

Dangling a hip new tourist attraction, with no upfront costs to the city, in front of Brooklyn's professional boosters is like dangling meat, grass-fed or otherwise, in front of a lion. An annual mega food-festival could feed Brooklyn's burgeoning hotel industry and lure tourists deeper into the borough's thick mid-section, to Prospect Park's Children's Corner and the nearby Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Botanic Garden among other attractions.

Should GoogaMooga return to Brooklyn? If GoogaMooga holds another event in Prospect Park next year, I hope they have:
  • more affordable eats
  • fewer vendors whose main gigs are at the Hilton and Madison Square Garden
  • more local mom-and-pop businesses (60% of this year's vendors weren't Brooklyn-based)
  • a democratic ticket-marketing mechanism that doesn't make mincemeat out of the word "public."

I'd like to see them "give back" and somehow address hunger in Brooklyn, too. As for the service complaints of their target market, I've no doubt they'll hop right on that.

The officials who run the parks owe it to the public to be transparent about the cost-benefit calculation of such mass, ticketed events, including possible negative impacts on other non-profit events competing for the same sponsors.

Above all, if the only way to get needed funding for the parks is to allow private ventures to slice and dice our grandly diverse public into neat market segments, well then, I hope the festival organizers pay the NYC Parks Department and groups such as Prospect Park Alliance through the proverbial nose for the privilege. Because the idea of using my local public park as a way to build a for-profit brand still gives me indigestion.

The public has been invited to submit feedback about GoogaMooga to the Prospect Park Alliance. Write