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How Knott's managed to transform itself during COVID with food festivals

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  • How Knott's managed to transform itself during COVID with food festivals

    Fantastic inside look at how Knott's Berry Farm and Cedar Fair managed to pivot repeatedly to local and state lockdowns to provide four food festivals during the 2020 pandemic lockdown. From Brady MacDonald in the Orange County Register and affiliated Southern California News Group newspapers:

    https://www.sbsun.com/2021/01/04/mee...estival-venue/

    Meet the person who transformed Knott’s Berry Farm into a food festival venue

    John Storbeck’s reinvention of the Buena Park theme park as a socially-distanced food festival venue kept thousands of employees working while serving hundreds of thousands of customers.

    Jon Storbeck launched a series of successful outdoor food festivals that brought thousands of Knott’s Berry Farm employees back to work and safely entertained hundreds of thousands of people during the coronavirus pandemic while other California theme parks remained shuttered.

    Partially reopening Knott’s has offered fans stuck at home during the pandemic a chance to revisit a reassuring safe haven in a year short on familiar comforts.

    “I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me personally in the last few months and just thanked me for opening, giving them a sense of normalcy, something to smile about and something to look forward to,” said Storbeck, the vice president and general manager of Knott’s.


    Jon Storbeck, vice president and general manager of Knott’s Berry Farm, in Ghost Town in Buena Park, CA, on Thursday, December 17, 2020. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

    Storbeck, 61, joined Knott’s in 2016 after more than 30 years of working for Disney. The North Tustin resident started at Disneyland after college as a ride operator and rose to the top ranks — serving as vice president of Downtown Disney and Disney’s three Anaheim hotels.

    Knott’s and other California theme parks closed in mid-March amid the COVID-19 pandemic and are not expected to fully reopen until early 2021 or next summer. Knott’s partially reopened in July without rides for the Taste of Calico food, beer and wine event that followed COVID-19 health and safety protocols that are now part of the “new normal” — mandatory face coverings, temperature screenings, social distancing and enhanced sanitization

    Storbeck and his Knott’s team began developing the Taste of Calico event in late May as the economy began slowly reopening and it became clear the pandemic would be measured in months rather than days or weeks. Then in June, Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, SeaWorld San Diego and Legoland California set July 1 reopening dates and Disneyland put a pin in the calendar on July 17 — the 65th anniversary of the park.

    “We shifted gears and put the idea of Taste of Calico on the shelf,” Storbeck said. “For the next two to three weeks we focused on, ‘OK, we need to get ready to open because it sounds like that’s the direction that things are going.’ Even though we had not announced a date and even though the state had not published any guidelines.”

    In late June, Knott’s quickly pivoted back to the Taste of Calico concept when state officials put a halt to California theme park reopening plans as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations began to spike. Taste of Calico debuted in July and the instant hit was followed by the Taste of Knott’s, Taste of Fall-O-Ween and Taste of Merry Farm.

    During the six-month festival run, Knott’s has served 1.25 million “tastes” at the four events that have been attended by 300,000 people. No COVID-19 outbreaks have been tied to Knott’s or any Cedar Fair parks, according to company officials.


    Knott’s was one of the first California theme parks to reimagine itself while rivals like Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain remained closed by the pandemic.

    The Taste events allowed Knott’s to bring back nearly half its peak summer staff of 5,500 employees and provided a safe entertainment environment during the pandemic, Storbeck said.

    Taste of Calico was born out of what was possible during the pandemic. Restaurants and retail had been allowed to reopen and Knott’s had a lot of both. Previous Knott’s Boysenberry Festivals had used a tasting card concept to sell food at the events. Brainstorming led to pairing the tasting card concept with an advanced reservation system that could control attendance.

    “We came up with the idea that if we basically pre-sold food and beverage — almost like you might buy a brunch ahead of time or something like that — we could control the number of reservations we had in the ‘restaurant’ — to use that as a metaphor — because we were very conscious of the safety protocols we’d put in place,” Storbeck said.

    The lion’s share of the heavy lifting fell on Knott’s food and beverage team to develop a menu with the retail and entertainment departments pitching in. Returning staff was trained on cleaning protocols while safety signage and social distancing ground markings were placed throughout the park. Then Knott’s tested Taste of Calico on back-to-back weekends in July.

    “We had no idea if anybody was even going to be interested in it,” Storbeck said.

    Taste of Calico opened with a limited number of food booths that drew long and mostly socially distanced lines that stretched throughout the park.

    “That first Friday night, we knew we had something that was popular,” Storbeck said.

    Knott’s teams immediately added more food booths to help cut down on the lines and expanded the Calico Ghost Town footprint to spread out the crowds. The first Taste of Calico customers were forgiving of the opening weekend hiccups.

    “They realized we were trying something that we hadn’t done before and they were very gracious about it,” Storbeck said.

    Dates were soon added and hours were extended to the sold-out Taste of Calico.

    “This became more or less our operating paradigm,” Storbeck said. “We knew that there was apparent demand out in the marketplace. We didn’t know how much or where the ceiling was.”

    Knott’s still hasn’t hit the ceiling yet with additional food festivals planned after the Taste of Merry Farm. Up next, Knott’s is already preparing a Boysenberry-based event in January or February.

    “This is our new normal,” Storbeck said. “Until something changes and we are able to open the theme park we’ve settled into this groove of offering food and retail outdoor experiences.”

    The state’s latest stay-at-home order brought Taste of Merry Farm to an abrupt halt and forced the park to switch gears to a shopping event called Knott’s Christmas Crafts Village.

    “There’s nothing we can’t do,” Storbeck said. “We can move quickly and we can pivot quickly.”

    The Taste events helped bring back nearly 2,000 Knott’s part-timers who joined 500 full-timers. The special events generate revenue that help pay staff salaries — but it’s nowhere near what Knott’s brings in when the park is fully operational.

    “As far as making money, what I will tell you is that by offering these events we’re losing less,” Storbeck said.

    Knott’s made a commitment to keep full-time employees on the job during the pandemic, he said.

    “It was good for us psychologically to get open,” Storbeck said. “It’s great for us to do what we do and entertain people. That’s what we live for.”

    Customer feedback on food, friendliness and safety has been off the charts, according to Storbeck.

    “We’ve gotten higher survey ratings from our guests during these ‘Taste of’ events than we ever have during the rest of our normal operation,” Storbeck said. “Our normal operation survey results were pretty good, but the ones we’re getting right now are world class.”

    Storbeck believes entertainment is essential to emotional health and social well-being — even if state officials categorize Knott’s and other theme parks as non-essential businesses.

    “I’ve had people come up to me crying because they are so appreciative of us giving them someplace they can go,” Storbeck said. “Mothers and daughters who say, ‘I haven’t been out of the house for six months. This is the first time I felt safe. You didn’t let me down.’ We’re an important part of our community and I’m just so appreciative of the guests that came out and continue to support us.”

    Only about 20% of those attending the Taste events have been Knott’s season passholders — which was surprising to Storbeck.

    “We’re probably exposing Knott’s to a whole different audience that wouldn’t normally have been here,” Storbeck said.

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