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ZooFari: Luster and Logistics

The Zoo's premier fundraiser is an enchanted evening of sumptious food, fine wine—and meticulous planning.

By Brittany Grayson

Anacondas eat. Zebras eat. And so does just about every animal in between. Accommodating those varied appetites is a full-time job at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, whose commissary serves roughly 2,000 meals a day to representatives of 400 species.

That’s not all the eating that goes on here, though. Guests bring appetites of their own, making their hungry way through hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, salads, and snacks. No doubt about it: Food is a key part of Zoo life—day in, day out.

Yet there’s one night in the Zoo year when food truly comes into focus, when the offerings are abundant enough, exquisite enough, varied enough to sate even Oliver Twist. That’s the third Thursday in May, when ZooFari turns the Zoo into a diner’s paradise.

Join us on May 19 for an extraordinary evening. You can sample food from more than a hundred top D.C. restaurants, sip wine from distinguished vintners, enjoy live music, and bid on fabulous auction items—all while exploring the Zoo.

Green tree python

ZooFari festivities in recent years have included a cake-decorating contest. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

More than exploring, actually. Supporting. ZooFari is Friends of the National Zoo’s top fundraiser, critical to the financial health of both FONZ and the Zoo. Our 2011 goal is to raise more than $400,000, which will provide vital support for animal care, conservation biology, educational initiatives, and more. So grab your foodiest friends and head to fonz.org/zoofari.htm to treat yourself to a great night for a great cause.

A History of Hospitality

ZooFari began almost three decades ago as a small catered dinner for FONZ members and other supporters. “It used to be more of a traditional Washington, D.C., fundraiser,” recalls Pat Petrella, FONZ’s director of corporate and special events. Guests donned black tie, dined in a tent, and danced to the music of well-known bands.

ZooFari chef and guest

A guest and chef marvel over a heavenly dessert. (NZP Photo Unit)

While elegant, the dances never raised the kind of funds FONZ needed. So Clint Fields, then the executive director, spurred his team to think creatively. “We thought: We’re the Zoo,” Petrella remembers. “We need to have more fun and mix it up. We need to move around more.”

The result was a complete overhaul. Out went the single, catered menu. In came an array of restaurants offering samples of their wares. Out went the tent in Parking Lot B. In came food stations all over the Zoo, to encourage walking and exploration.

It worked. The newly revamped ZooFari was a hit and has remained one. After years of seeking out restaurants and wineries to participate, ZooFari has become a coveted event for restaurants. “Now our dilemma is that we’re having to turn restaurants away,” Petrella says. Of course, that’s not a bad problem to have for a foodie event.

The abundance of offerings leads to another not-so-bad problem, according to executive director Bob Lamb. “The main problem everyone always tells me about is sampling as much as they can,” he says. “Keeping their appetite throughout the evening seems to be their biggest challenge.”

ZooFari continues to evolve. Lamb explains, “While we still follow the basic inspiration of connecting our guests with some of the very best food and wine in the D.C. area, we try to add a little something extra and create some new excitement each year. Last year we added a cake-decorating contest and a celebrity chef judging event.  This year we’re giving people a new opportunity to have a special animal experience at ZooFari.”

ZooFari’s evolution involves more than just increasing options and special features. Over the years, the ZooFari team has striven to reduce the event’s environmental footprint. Recently, that has meant replacing plastic trays and flatware with biodegradable versions. It has also meant stocking only 100 percent recycled napkins. Every change aims to improve ZooFari’s impact on the wider, and wilder, world.

Feeding Thousands of Primates

At the heart of each year’s ZooFari planning lies the challenge of putting together just the right mix of restaurants. That task falls to Pam Bucklinger and Sarah Demarest, who begin recruiting restaurants each January. Every year, more restaurants want to take part than can fit, so the pair tries to make selections based on which restaurants will make the event the most memorable and special for the guests.

Carla Hall

A chef demonstrates her skills. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

“We aim for high-end restaurants that people may usually only go out to on special occasions. We want to bring them all together for one amazing night,” Demarest explains. Bucklinger adds, “We look for trendy new hot spots people are talking about, celebrity chefs, and restaurants with sustainable menus. We give special recognition to restaurants that bring sustainable menu options, and it’s a great way to connect restaurants to the Zoo’s conservation efforts.”

Participating in ZooFari is not a small task for the restaurants. Each has to provide at least 2,000 tastings of food, and restaurants send up to five staff members to run and decorate their tables. Bucklinger and Demarest, meanwhile, work with FONZ’s food-service and events teams to figure out which restaurants will need power, who will need ice or a grill, who has to bring in a truck, and who may need help if their plans change at the last minute. Turning an acres-large site into what is, effectively, one enormous kitchen is no mean feat.

For all the hard work and stress, however, something interesting happens each year when Lamb walks the event site to thank the restaurants and vineyards personally for donating their time, services, and cuisine. “I start to thank them,” he says, “but they interrupt to thank me. They say it’s their favorite event of the year. They love the chance to get out of the hot kitchen on a beautiful spring night. They connect with their customers, friends, and colleagues. They appreciate how helpful our staff is, how beautiful the Zoo is, and how fantastic our guests are. They tell me they look forward to ZooFari every year.”

ZooFari food

Carrots and cheese await ZooFari guests. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

The Annual Army

Making ZooFari unfold as seamlessly as it does takes a small, annual army drawn from all corners of the Zoo and coordinated by Petrella’s team of expert event planners. It includes carpenters, electricians, and people prepared to haul large amounts of equipment and supplies from point A to point Z, and all the points in between.

Preparations begin up to a month before ZooFari as everyone orders the supplies ZooFari will require: wood, temporary fencing, electrical wiring, outlets, lights, and fuses. Once carpenters have the materials, they start building entryways and stages, putting up temporary fences, and looking at the electrical layout of the site to ensure safety and to see if all the restaurants will have what they need. They also have to plan ahead for the inevitable last-minute changes and emergencies.

The week of the event, teams begin setting up tables, chairs, coat racks, lights, electrical cords, trash cans, benches, tents, and signs. This setup continues until the very night of the gala. And, as facilities manager Anthony Robinson reports, the oddest emergencies can get in the way.

“One time when we got to the trailer where the tables were stored, and we were ambushed by a large colony of bees,” Robinson recalls. “They chased us out. Somehow, no one got stung. There were five of us in a race for the door. But we still had to get the tables out. The event was happening regardless of the bees. The pest-control people sprayed something to calm them down, and we got the tables out. Needless to say, we were extra cautious after that inside that trailer.”

Zoo and FONZ staff are not the only ones who work tirelessly up to and on the night of ZooFari. The event also requires some 150 volunteers. They help set up chairs and tables, and hang signs on the tents. A proficient team of table-skirt experts goes around and dresses all the tables. Hours before the event, athletic volunteers haul ice, beer, wine, and cases upon cases of soda to the bars scattered throughout the event site.

Volunteers also help the night of ZooFari—tending bar, monitoring tables, greeting guests, checking IDs, taking tickets, and helping out with the auction, raffles, and games. According to Helen Moore, a FONZ event planner, “The event could not happen without the support of our volunteers.”

The biggest challenge is that almost all of this preparation has to go on while the Zoo is open. The Zoo doesn’t close to guests until a few hours before ZooFari begins. So everyone has to work around families seeing the Zoo, tourists on vacation, flocks of schoolchildren, and  interested and interfering guests of all stripes. “We have thousands of kids here the whole time,” Robinson says. “They tend to be more interested in what we are doing than in the animals.”

chef at work

A chef creates truly wild cake adornments. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Stephen Micciche, who supervises the carpentry, paint, and masonry shops, marvels at how thousands of moving parts come together each year to form a smooth, cohesive, efficient event. “It’s funny to me now,” he says, “but at the time of the event, when there are people running everywhere solving issues, dozens of vendors setting up and everything is chaos, I find it amazing that it all comes together. You have to see it to believe it,” He adds wryly, “I think it’s odd how it seems to rain the night after the event or while we are picking up the next day. But we’re all in this together.”

Enchanted Evening

At last, everything is in place. Tables are set, linens are pressed, signs are hung, entertainers and restaurants are in place. Curators and keepers stand ready to show off their charges. And then the guests arrive. Staff and volunteers greet them, taking tickets and guiding them into the event.

Even now, however, the event’s logistical demands do not lessen. Much of the work falls to FONZ’s guest services team, headed by Rafford Seymour. One of the biggest challenges, he says, is keeping the event site clean. “We want the event to look all evening as nice as it did when it just started.” That goal requires a team of almost 50, including people drafted from other areas of the Zoo. They patrol constantly, cleaning up plates and glasses.

bread

Bread offers a feast for the eye as well as the mouth. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

“The backbreaker,” according to Seymour, is the cleanup at the end of the night. The event goes until 9:30, and, as at any good party, it takes a while for the last few guests to straggle out to their cars. Meanwhile, though, Seymour’s team has shifted into high gear.

“The amazing part,” he says, “is how we take down such an elaborate event. The next day, you wouldn’t even know we had a huge party. The next morning, the only thing left is the tents.”

Actually, the tents are not quite the only thing left. There are also the guests’ memories of a polished, perfect evening. And then there are the funds raised by all this effort—a lustrous contribution to FONZ, the Zoo, and our shared work of restoring an endangered natural world.


—BRITTANY GRAYSON is a web editor and science writer for Friends of the National Zoo.

 

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(3) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.