In 2009, Coolhaus took flight at Coachella, the renowned music and arts festival that brings nearly 200,000 people to the California desert for two weekends each spring. For Coolhaus cofounders Natasha Case and Freya Estreller, launching their ice cream sandwich–peddling concept at Coachella was neither a happy accident nor a stroke of coincidence. Strategic and calculated, the decision represented Case and Estreller’s ambitious bet on their concept and its potential to become an energized, Millennial-driven lifestyle brand.
“We chose Coachella because of its large, captive audience and because it’s a cultural experience in a young, hip environment,” Case says. “The plan at the time was to get in front of as many people as possible and put money in the bank.”
It proved a winning bet. Seven years after its Coachella debut, Coolhaus claims 10 trucks scattered among Los Angeles, New York City, and Dallas; two brick-and-mortar L.A. area outlets; and retail product in more than 4,000 stores across the U.S. The brand’s rise can be attributed to a number of factors, Case acknowledges, but the undeniable push that appearances at Coachella and other trendy, large-scale music celebrations—including New York City’s Governors Ball Music Festival and the Austin City Limits Music Festival—have provided the California-based brand cannot be overlooked.
“These festivals have allowed us to hit critical mass and to see as many potential customers as possible, a number of whom are perfectly aware of their own image and eager to look cool with what they’re eating,” Case says.
For upstart concepts like Coolhaus, some of the nation’s premier music festivals—Austin City Limits, Coachella, Lollapalooza, Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra, Sweetlife, and Bonnaroo, to name just a few of the scene’s powerhouse events—present a compelling opportunity to introduce their quick-service brands to the masses, particularly the connected Millennial crowd. These festivals also help concepts deepen inroads with fans, ride the cool factor these heralded events exude, and broaden their appeal from a brand that dishes out eats to one that exists as part of a larger lifestyle movement.
“We’re trying to be bigger than just ice cream,” Case says. “We’re about a culture, and when you have that, you can do anything with it. You can become a true lifestyle brand, not just someone who provides a delicious product.”
Coolhaus, for instance, has an upcoming cookie line, and Case has even contemplated Coolhaus jewelry.
“Ice cream is our vehicle, but we’re big-picture thinkers,” she says. “When you’re viewed as a lifestyle brand—when you’ve situated yourself inside a culture—it’s like a magic wand to give different things a shot, and that’s powerful creative license.”
In April 2015, 800 Degrees, the 12-unit Neapolitan pizza chain headquartered in L.A., made its first appearance at Coachella, an opportunity 800 Degrees founder Anthony Carron savored.
“Coachella gave us access to a young, hip, and plugged-in demographic,” he says. “For our brand, being at Coachella was about doing something authentic and original.”
Indeed, being present and serving up eats in an energized festival setting provides an important shot of street cred to emerging quick-service concepts. Just look at Torchy’s Tacos, the 10-year-old, Texas-based concept known for its flavorful tacos with quirky names like the Trailer Park and Dirty Sanchez. Torchy’s has participated in Austin City Limits—the Texas capital city’s renowned music festival—for the last six years. Torchy’s marketing director Brittany Platt says appearing at the popular festival drives the taco chain’s local standing, especially since festival organizers are stringent about the food vendors they admit into their prized event. “It’s almost like an Austin VIP club,” Platt says. “Just being there is like a stamp of approval that you’re a brand to be known and celebrated.”
Participating in Austin City Limits has been so rewarding and positive that Torchy’s has doubled down on partaking in similar Millennial-targeted lifestyle events. The eatery’s team has made appearances at the extreme sports–themed X Games in Austin and South by Southwest, Austin’s ever-evolving cultural event that features film, media, music, and more each March. The company continues seeking similar opportunities, excited to connect its brand to more worldly events and take its inventive product out of traditional restaurant spaces.
“When you can get into more dynamic and fun settings, the brand only stands to benefit from that vibe,” Platt says.
Like its fellow Austin quick serve Torchy’s, Chi’lantro BBQ has also participated in Austin City Limits and South by Southwest, as well as the Euphoria Music Festival located at Austin’s Carson Creek Ranch.
“Our customer base is constantly looking for new trends and new things to try, so when we go to these hot festivals, we know we’re getting new customers and people interacting with our brand,” Chi’lantro’s Michael Hong says. He adds that participating in such noteworthy events gives the six-year-old, three-store Chi’lantro concept an opportunity to engage with people living a social lifestyle. “People connect with these artists and then we connect with them, which is so beneficial for us in the long term,” he says. “We become part of their lives, and we can naturally flow into that scene by being present and visible at these cool events.”
At the same time quick-service brands have targeted top festivals, event organizers themselves have become increasingly interested in food. Intent on creating a true, all-encompassing cultural festival that excites with music and other arts, many event organizers have prioritized food and, in particular, restaurant concepts employing an inventive culinary spirit and lively brand image.