Long before David Tyda produced epic food festivals in Phoenix, he edited glossy magazines. One of them was Trump Style, a gig he now “regrets every second of.” His final job as an editor was with Desert Living Magazine, a Valley publication that folded in 2009 – a casualty of the Great Recession. Instead of abandoning his writing career, Tyda, along with business partner Rick Phillips, started EaterAZ.com, one of the Valley’s first food blogs. But “we immediately learned that two grown men cannot live off of a food blog,” Tyda says, so they fell headfirst into producing food festivals with no experience. After launching a barbecue festival riddled with blunders, the duo created the Arizona Taco Festival – the first U.S. event devoted solely to the Mexican staple, according to Tyda – heading into its eighth gangbuster year this October. Today, Tyda and Phillips produce a pair of food gatherings under the Affordable Food Festivals umbrella: Arizona Taco Festival and Street Eats Food Truck Festival. Tyda flies solo on the Phoenix Pizza Festival.
Where and when did you stage your first festival?
In March 2010, across the street from Olive & Ivy in Scottsdale. It was a dirt lot back then, so we rented that plot of land and threw a barbecue festival. Over 10,000 people showed up. We had our asses handed to us. It was the worst day of my life. [Senator] John McCain came, which was cool, but we ran out of food in probably an hour and a half. It was just a hot mess.
What goes into planning and coordinating a festival?
A lot of waking hours. It all starts with getting the word out to the food vendors and explaining how the financials work. Then you start site planning and have to channel the side of your brain that handles the logistics and not the imagination and creativity. So much goes into it – how people are going to flow, a vendor’s power needs. Is a vendor going to face the sun all day? What happens if it rains? Weather is pretty much the only variable in this business, but it’s a big one.
What has been the most memorable moment for you as a food festival organizer?
It was the fourth year of the taco festival, when our attendance hit the 20,000 mark, and I was behind a tent with the health department. They had reviewed all the restaurants and were giving me the report and you could hear the event happening. It had a heartbeat. It had a living heartbeat, and that’s when I realized that this taco festival is now truly a living, breathing thing, and I think it will exist in perpetuity here in town, not unlike the Barrett-Jackson or Waste Management Phoenix Open. It was kind of surreal.
Why do you think the Arizona Taco Festival has been so successful?
Two reasons. When we started the festival, it was literally in response to when family or friends come to town, the first question they always ask is, “Where can we go for good tacos?” We’re a taco town. Secondarily, the food category as a whole represents a let-your-hair-down kind of vibe. We toy with the phrase “from beach to barrio” as one of our marketing slogans because when you eat tacos, you either have your toes in sand and you’re drinking a Corona or you’re in the barrio in Mexico somewhere eating from a taco cart with taco grease running down your arm and you’re having the most authentic experience.
Do you have a favorite taco?
I can’t answer that. I have so many. I’ve never met a taco I didn’t like.
Does that include Taco Bell?
I go to Taco Bell after the first night of the taco festival every single year. Because I don’t get off-site until about midnight, I probably haven’t eaten and if I have, it’s been very little, so I just go through Taco Bell drive-thru. I feel like it’s a bit of a good luck charm.