AUSTIN – “Casa San Antonio,” the Alamo City’s first official cultural embassy at SXSW Interactive was buzzing with activity on Friday with panel discussions, taco wars, and other imported treats that summed up the flavor of San Antonio for local, national, and international visitors.
Choose San Antonio, a new local nonprofit that forged a coalition of sponsors for the city’s SXSW initiative, rented out the entire Old School Bar and Grill in downtown Austin for the duration of the five-day technology and innovation conference. These SXSW panels involving San Antonians at Casa San Antonio were well attended, with visitor numbers averaging 75 or more each session.
Between it all, SXSW attendees took in the sights and sounds of the festivities surrounding them. Long after the Old School Bar and Grill opened to the public at 11 a.m., there was a constant stream of SXSW badge-carrying participants mingled with individuals who were simply coming in for a bite or a drink on the bar’s first floor, which anyone could access.
“It’s exactly how we envisioned it,” said Melissa Aguillon of Aguillon and Associates, the local public relations firm that has publicized the #SATXatSXSW initiative.
“Everything is running smooth, knock on wood,” added Kevin Peckham, Choose San Antonio’s co-founder and executive director.
Eric Bell, Choose San Antonio’s board chairman and co-founder, said he had not heard of any problems with a free bus that was shuttling up to 30 San Antonio SXSW attendees at a time between Austin and San Antonio.
The shuttle offered an extra incentive on Friday given traffic gridlock and the road closures caused by SXSW festivities and a visit from President Barack Obama. He was in town to speak with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith during a SXSW keynote and attend a local Democratic fundraiser.
Indeed, Casa San Antonio is just that — about San Antonio. Some people enjoyed free cookies from Tiff’s Treats on the second floor bar, where panels are held. Copies of the latest Edible San Antonio magazine were placed on seats for panel discussions.
Some individuals got temporary tattoos and shirts bearing local artist Cruz Ortiz‘s work specifically designed for the #SATXatSXSW initiative. Some of that art can be seen on murals pasted outside the bar wall facing Trinity Street.
Ortiz spent a few hours on the bar’s first floor Friday, displaying and selling shirts, koozies and other items bearing his SXSW and non-SXSW art. He was thrilled with the reaction from the public. He recalls when Choose San Antonio and the City of San Antonio first approached him about providing official logos for the City’s biggest ever SXSW presence.
“I first thought, Oh my God, and I didn’t want to do tacos or the Alamo or a coonskin hat, so I just looked at the idea of what San Antonio is now.” Ortiz said. “I wanted to be bold, and naturally a lot of my work does that already, so I thought I’ll just do what I do. It looks great here. At South by, you have to be bold.”
San Antonio’s major presence at SXSW has already impressed Austinites like as Crystal Stein who visited the Friday evening party at Casa San Antonio. She tried on goggles in a booth from Merge VR, a virtual reality startup based at Geekdom.
“I think it’s awesome. It’s nice to have a San Antonio presence at South by Southwest this year,” she said. “It’s good to include more of Texas with what’s going on in Austin.”
San Antonio Wins Taco War by Default
Earlier Friday morning, three renowned teams of chefs from San Antonio gathered at Casa San Antonio for a taco-off, putting their breakfast taco-making skills to the test. A panel of five judges from nationally known print and online culinary publications joined more than 200 people, over two hours, in chowing down on tacos from representatives of Chef Johnny Hernandez’s group of restaurants, Chef Carino Cortez and Chef Diana Barrios Trevino. Each San Antonio taco-making team walked away with an award as Austin chefs failed to show up.
The taco-off originally was to be a showdown between San Antonio and Austin chefs in the wake of their brief breakfast taco war. However, a truce was called during the “taco summit” between Mayor Ivy Taylor and her counterpart, Austin’s Steve Adler, on Thursday.
“We really did want some Austin representation. But you know, people who make great tacos in Austin are from San Antonio,” Hernandez said. “We thought serving something very traditional, in a taco breakfast, was a great way to start the three days of us being here, showcasing San Antonio.”
SA Chefs Dig up Roots of Culinary Scene
Robert Fleming, chef and owner at Magnolia Pancake Haus, explained during a South by Southwest panel in Austin on Friday about the property he owns near Huebner Road and Interstate 10 West that will soon be home to the Culinaria Urban Farm.
The local nonprofit Culinaria is getting help from supporters, chefs, food professionals, farmers and others at creating what will be called “The Farm,” a place for teaching future generations about growing food in an urban setting. Fleming said he is fortunate to be in a position to help Culinaria in its mission.
“If you’re going to wait around for someone else to take care of us, that someone else will never come,” Fleming said.
Suzanne Taranto Etheredge, president and CEO of Culinaria, added that educating children on food production has been a major purpose for her organization.
The Farm, which will be self-sustaining and set to open this fall, will invite chefs and other food professionals to lead community culinary and farming educational programs for all ages. It will also have a space for farmers markets.
“It’s very important to have for children different curriculum to show that, no matter their socioeconomics, they can grow their own food,” she said.
Fleming and Etheredge said building their own urban farm for the public, instead of waiting for a business or group to do it, demonstrates that San Antonio is taking initiative with timely issues such as urban farming and sustainability.
Diego Galicia, chef and owner of Mixtli Progressive Mexican Culinaria, also spoke in a SXSW panel. He encouraged diners to imagine a future where dishes could include grasshoppers and other ingredients that were once staple foods for population centers throughout Central and South American centuries ago.
Galicia explained grasshoppers are rich in protein and flavorful, and yet the raising of grasshoppers has much less of an ecological impact than the mass raising of cattle and chicken. He and his staff offered free grasshopper toastada to members of the large crowd.
“Just give it a try, be open-minded,” Galicia said of the delicacy.
In a panel about using technology and outsourcing for producing and preparing food and spirits, Restaurant Gwendolyn owner and chef Michael Sohocki stood firm in his belief that locally sourcing ingredients on a small scale is a sustainable, responsible way to lead a culinary business. Sohocki uses no technology in prepping his food at Restaurant Gwendolyn.
“My restaurant was a revolt against the conventional food service industry,” he said. “I just make food I believe in, and I get ingredients from farmers I know.”
The Origins of ‘Go Spurs Go’
Branding was the focus for two panels with San Antonians. Al Aguilar, co-founder and CEO of the firm Creative Civilization, moderated a discussion on digital media strategies for NBA championship teams. He later recounted how his firm officially founded the campaign behind the now-popular chant, “Go Spurs Go,” in 1999.
Initially the Spurs did not like the campaign, but Creative Civilization was persistent and rallied community support through commercials to persuade the Spurs. “Go Spurs Go” found its way into San Antonians’ minds and hearts as the Spurs went on to win their NBA title.
“Every year we tell ourselves, let’s come up with something new, and it’s just not going to go away,” Aguilar laughed. “Sometimes, a simple idea right before your very eyes won’t go away. But it worked.”
Graphic design studio owner Doris Palmeros had a solo presentation about branding lessons for food startups. She said branding is a story about the business, what it offers, how the business owner(s) interact with their customers, and how those customers feel about their experience with the business. The brand for a new restaurant, for example, encompasses more than its logo and identity.
“You want (your customers) to have a good experience. You don’t want them going away and never coming back,” she told the crowd.
Voting Equity and Efficiency
It wasn’t all food fun and games with the other San Antonio-oriented panels at SXSW and Casa San Antonio. State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) and Peter Jackson of the California design and consulting firm IDEO, addressed how technology can help to improve voter registration and turnout at the polls overall.
“Elections this year in Bexar County were a mess,” Bernal said, alluding to long lines of voters during the March 1 primaries. In spite of that, final turnout exceeded 25% for the primaries. Bernal and Jackson admitted there are still many challenges in increasing the number of registered voters and encouraging higher voter turnouts overall.
“When you hold an election, the last thing you want to get in the way is technology and the systems that people put in,” Jackson said.
Bernal said state politics and legal rulings in recent years have given Texas a reputation for being restrictive on voter identification.
“You can use a handgun license, but not a (University of Texas at Austin) ID,” he said. He added that when officials worry about voter fraud, Bernal said the true purpose of voter identification “should be to say who you are and not imitating someone else.” The state legislator also said that technology can provide solutions to making voter registration easier and confirming voter IDs more efficiently.
But as far as helping to bolster turnout, Bernal and Jackson admitted people will stay away from the polls because, simply, they feel their vote does not count.
“The problem in San Antonio is turnout is super low. It’s a product of apathy,” Bernal said. “That’s partly generated by a lack of responsiveness (from elected officials).”
Top image: “Casa San Antonio” banner in Austin during SXSW Interactive 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.