TAKE YOU HIGHER: Devon Gilfillian was part of the 2021 Highlands Food & Wine Festival, which this year features Grace Potter, The War & Treaty and others. (Bain Stewart Media)
Event was created in 2016 to bring visitors to aptly named area
The seventh annual Highlands Food & Wine Festival takes boutique events to new heights.
The four-day festival (Nov. 9-12) for food and beverage enthusiasts takes over the small, picture-perfect, mountain town of Highlands, North Carolina, at an elevation of 4,118 feet with multiple carefully curated events featuring award winning chefs and musical performances by The War & Treaty, Grace Potter and famed Rolling Stones and Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell, among others.
The event was created in 2016 to bring visitors to the area in what is traditionally the off-season, according to festival producer Casey Reid, of Eleven Events in Greenville, South Carolina.
“Highlands is this beautiful enclave that has been a summer resort for years,” Reid said. Local hospitality partner Old Edwards Inn and other businesses “were really working to make it a year-round tourist destination. So, our mission with Highlands Food & Wine was to create a multi-day destination event that drives visitation during what was typically a shoulder season.”
Live music is central to the popularity of the festival, with premium tickets for six separate events ranging from $270 to $475 per person; up to $1,975 for a five-event VIP Weekender Pass, which sold out six months in advance. Caps are intentionally small: from 500 to nearly 1,300 depending on the event. Total attendance adds up to about 3,000 annually.
“Highlands is a tiny place physically so we have had to market ourselves as a boutique festival where everyone feels like a VIP,” Reid said.
Keeping the numbers down reduces environmental impact on the town, which sits on a plateau in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The town, which was named for its elevation, has a regular population of 1,088.
“We have an enthusiastic fan base,” Reid explained. “I think top billing goes to the setting — not only the musicians and our chefs, but also the setting of Highlands. I think putting that all together in a boutique festival setting has been really well received.”
The non-profit Highlands Food & Wine Festival was created to attract visitors, but it also benefits charity with proceeds going to several groups including the Louis Osteen Scholarship endowment at the Culinary Institute of America, Friends of Founders Park, Highland Performing Arts Center and The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts.
“Not only do we put heads in beds but we attract a certain demographic that is going to come here and not only enjoy the festival but enjoy the lodging accommodations, retail shopping and possibly come back and buy vacation homes,” Reid said. “It’s a tradition people travel for.”
More than a dozen regional chefs participate including 2023 James Beard Award finalists Sam Hart of counter in Charlotte, Adé Carrena of the West African dining experience Dounou Cuisine in Raleigh, Steven Goff of Tastee Diner in Asheville in North Carolina, and Peter Dale of Maepole in Athens, Georgia.
“Our events are not huge,” Reid offered. “At each of our events people can get up close and personal with our chefs, with wine makers, with mixologists, and with the musicians. None of these events are 5,000 to 10,000 people. They all feel quite intimate, even the largest one on Main Street.”
The success of Highlands Food & Wine led to the creation in 2021 of a sister festival, Bear Shadow, which is held each spring (May 11-12). “They really are marketing strategies for the town of Highlands to promote visitation all year long,” Reid added.