First published in the April 21 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
In its first year of conception in 2016, the Masters of Taste food festival set out to break the mold of the fundraising formula for Union Station Homeless Services, a nonprofit committed to helping homeless men, women and children rebuild their lives.
The organization’s board of directors was laser-focused on the mission to end homelessness in the Pasadena area, but to do that, it had to create bigger revenue streams. The traditional, annual gala that was put on to benefit the group — while successful by all current standards — just wasn’t generating the funds needed to make a dent in the problem.
“This was such an enormous social issue, it really required some bigger ideas,” said former longtime Union Station board member Rob Levy. “The first thing that struck me was that we were doing exactly the same thing that every other nonprofit in town does by holding an annual gala and silent auction. That felt very restrictive because a gala is only as big as the room it’s held in; you’ll never break the ceiling on fundraising that way.
“So, I said, ‘We need a bigger room.’”
Hence, the annual Masters of Taste at the Rose Bowl Stadium was born.
Having just recently completed its fifth iteration of the event, Masters of Taste has turned into the second-largest premier food and beverage festival across Los Angeles County, each year breaking records in turnout and fundraising, with 100% of the proceeds going to Union Station Homeless Services. Earlier this month, the festival raised more than $650,000 and saw some 3,000 people descend on the iconic field to enjoy unique tastings from more than 100 different providers, or “masters.”
From the beginning, Levy, his wife, Leslie, and dedicated team worked to create not just a fundraiser, but a memorable event that was local to Pasadena. As owners of the Raymond, the Levys understood the high-end restaurant circuit and had relationships with vendors, chefs and suppliers. They began spreading the word of the festival, the first to be held at the Rose Bowl, with some trepidation: how to get chefs and restaurants to donate their time, food and staff for a good cause?
“That first year, we really had to call in some favors and twist a few arms and convince everyone this was a good idea and such a worthy cause,” said Levy, who has chaired the event every year since it began.
“Were there problems? Oh yes, there were a million problems,” he added, laughing.
Levy, who by day is the area manager and mortgage loan officer at Homebridge Financial Services Inc., enjoys problem solving. Between his team at the Raymond and the enthusiastic staff and board at Union Services, the food festival overcame the obstacles one by one. In the end, the Raymond threw in an extra incentive for all the chef masters: after packing it in on the field they would be treated to a high-end dinner and drinks at the historic restaurant, a tradition to this day.
The pandemic-induced health restrictions cancelled the Masters of Taste festival in 2020 and 2021. The loss was felt deeply, not just because of the lack of social connection reverberating among local supporters, but because Union Station Homeless Services doubled down on its efforts to help at-risk clients whose needs spiked.
“It’s like we were suddenly facing two different crises on top of one another,” said Union Station Homeless Services CEO Ann Miskey. “There was the housing crises compounded by what were very unsafe conditions for our unhoused and what we saw to be a dramatic increase of the needs of people on the street.”
The nonprofit moved clients from the shelters to hotels to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19, while distributing PPE such as masks and hand sanitizer to them. Food insecurity quickly shot up as smaller food pantries run through churches and private groups had to close. Union Station staff worked hard to distribute meals and create partnerships to care for those experiencing homelessness.
The Masters team and the organization studied every possibility to safely hold the festival in 2020, but ultimately decided it could not run the risk when so little was known about the spread of the coronavirus.
A RETURN TO NORMALCY
Perhaps it was worth the wait: Masters of Taste broke all its records at its fifth-ever event earlier this month, despite all the odds.
For one, organizers weren’t sure COVID-19 case levels would remain low enough to warrant holding the event. Then, the restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, and Levy and Miskey grew worried their usual Masters couldn’t afford to make donations after such financial hardship. Combined with difficulty finding staff amid the “great resignation” and a product supply chain that has been thrown into havoc, Levy said “there were a lot of fingers crossed.”
But he and his team saw the event as a dire challenge: “This was really a do or die situation… We were off for two years, if we couldn’t bring it back this year, it felt like it might truly be the demise. How could we ever come back after three years?”
Incredibly, the event was the biggest and the best: Although a handful of previous masters were no longer in business, newer chefs and restauranteurs were eager to participate. The nonprofit scored some important corporate sponsors to underpin its success.
“There were a whole lot of good things that came together to make this happen without a hitch,” Levy added. “It is such an amazing group of people who come together here — it is all-hands on deck, and everyone was happy to be there. [Pre-pandemic], we had taken for granted that you can come together in this way… There was a great sense of relief and desire to be around friends and give hugs and have a great time.”
Miskey said she was thrilled to be back out and spreading the word of Union Station’s mission and all the important work her team did during the pandemic.
“Everyone broke out into spontaneous dancing at the end of the event, which really encapsulated how we all felt after coming together to support a vital cause. It was amazing to be with people and see people; we all have crazed human connection and being there with our fellow people just made it all the more special.”