The Northwest Chocolate Festival in Seattle is the largest festival devoted to chocolate in the US. Every year in November, the festival welcomes over 100 exhibitors and thousands of chocolate-lovers from all over the world over one cacao-filled weekend.
Living in Pennsylvania, I’d never thought I’d ever attend the festival, simply because crossing the country for a chocolate show seemed like an indulgence. This all changed in 2016 when I saw a gazillion photos of the festival on Instagram: everyone who is someone in chocolate seemed to have gathered at the event. As a chocolate sommelier, I so wanted to be with them. So, the following fall, I made the decision to go to Seattle for the “Superbowl of Chocolate,” as Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate calls it.
The event was so much fun. I met my favorite makers, ran into my friends from Ucayali Farms in Peru, and ate a lot of chocolate. However, nothing could have prepared me for how large and crowded the event would be. Sure, I had a great time, but I left Seattle knowing I had only scratched the surface of the festival. The good news is that I have learned some valuable lessons that I’m pleased to share with you today. I hope they’ll help you make the most of your own trip to the Pacific Northwest.
Tip #1: Plan Ahead
If you’re a chocoholic like me, you’ll want to start planning your trip several months before the festival. My expenses for this trip were minimal, mostly because I started planning for it 9 months earlier in February. That’s when I signed up for a credit card which rewarded me 30,000 miles as a welcome bonus (the round-trip flight to Seattle for 40,000 miles.) As for lodging, I stayed at a friend’s house. Admittedly, not everyone has friends in Seattle, but you can save on accommodations by sharing a hotel room with another festival attendee or by renting an Airbnb.
There is a fee to enter the festival – the daily adult pass starts at $30 – but you can get early bird rates in the summer. Sign up to the festival’s newsletter to be notified of special offers.
With over 100 exhibitors attending the festival each year, you’ll have a fantastic opportunity to replenish your chocolate
closet stash. I recommend budgeting for the event several months ahead, even setting a bit of money aside each month so you can indulge during the festival.
Tip #2: Come Early. Really Early.
Boy, did I learn this lesson the hard way. The festival officially started at 11 AM on both days and my friend Séverine and I thought we’d be at the venue by then. I had already planned on attending Chloé Doutre-Roussel’s session on “Chocolate Tasting for Professionals.” When we started hitting traffic a couple of miles of the entrance, I figured I’d be 10 minutes late. At noon, I gave up any hope of hearing the results of the “Survey of North American Fine Craft Chocolate-Makers Research Needs and Research Teams.” At 12:30, I left my friend in her car and ran toward Pier 91, where the festival was held.
At that point, I knew I’d have to attend the show with one single focus: in my case, people. Industry conferences and festivals offer incredible opportunities to connect with fellow chocophiles and makers and I was excited to finally meet Mackenzie Rivers of Map Chocolate, and Hans from Hans Westerink of Violet Sky Chocolate.
While I made the best of my time at the show, I’m disappointed that the line to the parking lot was so long I had to miss speakers. First world problem, I know, but when I read the attendees’ feedback on Shawn Askinosie’s talk on finding work with purpose – the audience was apparently in tears – I was bummed that none of the talks were live-streamed or recorded. Next time, I’ll do what hardcore chocoholics did and get a morning entry pass to hit the vendor stands at 9:00 AM. Members of the chocolate industry should consider getting a professional ticket which allows access to both Friday’s Unconference and the festival.
Tip #3: Bring Cash
Hogarth Chocolate in New Zealand is of my favorite chocolate-makers — I could eat their Bread & Butter bar in one sitting and buy their Gianduia by the case. I was thrilled to find a new-to-me Rose & Tea bar and starting stocking up for future tastings at the local library — how special would the audience feel! I had gathered $70 worth of bars when I found out the maker only accepted cash. Wait, what? I withheld a tear and put the bars on the table, settling on two bars instead.
What I discovered that day is that only makers with US bank accounts were able to accept credit cards. That meant I only bought one camel milk chocolate from Dubai and zero from Austrian company Zotter. Lesson learned: next time, I will slip more than a couple of $20 bills in my wallet so I can stock up on foreign bars — chestnut praline, anyone?
Tip #4: Pack a Lunch
The Northwest Chocolate Festival was held on a pier, which means there aren’t dining options in walking distance from the show. Sure, there were food trucks by the entrance, but 4 food trucks aren’t nearly enough to feed thousands of hungry festival-goers. Personally, I’d rather spend my time talking to makers upstairs than standing in line for fish and chips, so I recommend packing a light lunch like a salad or sandwich to eat between tastings.
Tip #5: Stay Late
Although the festival closes at 5 PM, many exhibitors stay well after then to dismantle their booths and simply catch their breath. With the pressure off, I was able to have some nice chats with several chocolate friends, like chocolate educator Barbie Van Horn and Lauren Heineck from the Conversations in Cocoa newsletter. Sure, everybody was tired, but it was neat to have some quiet, quality time with good friends.
Looking back, I did have a good time at the festival. Sure, I would have loved attending some talks, meeting all of my chocolate friends – sorry I missed you, Victoria – but I headed back home with a suitcase full of chocolate, a phone loaded with memories, and the conviction that I belong in this world.
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