Riverbend 2015 online
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Even in the spartan, wood-paneled interior of a nondescript trailer parked under the Olgiati Bridge, Karen Shostak can't quite seem to switch off her instincts as a hostess.
It's rare to spend more than a few minutes in the presence of Friends of the Festival's director of sales without being offered some kind of concession, whether a bottle of water, a snack or a more comfortable seat.
For more than a decade, the freckle-faced, 39-year-old Honduran native has been Riverbend's de facto queen of hospitality, in charge of everything from concessions and alcohol sales training to catering and lodging for the bands and support crew. As a result, she says, ensuring people's comfort — not to mention a knack for dogged micromanagement — has become a hard-wired, all-but-automatic impulse.
Here is an excerpt from Riverbend's Compliance, Orientation & Responsibility Education training program for alcohol sales developed by Karen Shostak:
“With the cooperative effort of your organization and Friends of the Festival, we can:
› Help create and sustain a relaxed, friendly and comfortable atmosphere for guests.
› Exercise a degree of control within the environment of social drinking
› Influence aspects of drinking behavior and encourage responsibility among drinkers
› Help to forestall troublesome situations
› Incorporate skills and expertise in a positive, meaningful and profitable way”
"I've always been a person who likes to take care of people. I like to host," she laughed. "It's something I gravitate well to, caring for people and seeing a result of something I did make them a little happier. It's very gratifying work I get to do here."
Like most of Friends of the Festival's nine full-time staff members, Shostak's title only hints at the scope of her duties. In addition to being the go-between for more than 40 on-site vendors and hundreds of workers, she oversees the Riverbend Marketplace and paid amusements and helps test and implement various technological initiatives, such as the scanned-wristband ticketing system that was introduced in 2014.
Most importantly, however, said Friends of the Festival Executive Director Chip Baker, Shostak developed Compliance Orientation & Responsibility Education, or CORE, the festival's alcohol-training program. Through almost two dozen, two-hour training sessions leading up to opening day of the festival, CORE is used to train about 350 volunteer staffers each year how to efficiently and legally serve an estimated 100,000 beers during the course of the festival.
"Karen is probably one of the best experts in the region," Baker said. "We take [alcohol sales] very seriously, and she's elevated the program to being one of the best in the Southeast. All it takes is one [improperly served beer]. That's a black eye we can't afford. It's something we aim to make sure we never have an issue with."
In 2008, the Chattanooga Beer and Wrecker Board fined Friends of the Festival $1,000 and placed the organization on "prolonged probation" after two vendors allowed minors to obtain wristbands and purchase beer during a Riverbend compliance check.
"[After the incident,] we ramped up the training, which is very direct," Shostak said. "During the festival, we spot-check each location, assist with the process, reinstruct and check compliance on a nightly — and almost hourly — basis."
The goal of CORE and its post-training session education, Shostak said, is to equip the festival's vendors to serve as the first line of defense in preventing subsequent offenses. Since Shostak developed CORE in 2008, the program has become so successful that her skills have been outsourced to train alcohol vendors at other private and community events, including the Bessie Smith Strut, Southern Brewers Festival and the Riverfront Nights concert series.
Compared to alcohol sales in restaurants and bars, interactions with customers at a frenetic festival like Riverbend occur on a much shorter timescale. CORE's fundamental purpose, Shostak said, is to help inexperienced servers — many of them volunteers who have never poured for anyone but themselves — to screen guests at every step of the process. They must check that the person has the proper wristband (Riverbend changes the color every night), make sure the wristband hasn't been tampered with in some way, which might mean that an underage person is wearing it, then take the proper number of tokens and open the beverage before handing it to the customer.
Often, especially when lines are long, there may be just a brief window to determine whether the person in front of them can legally be served.
"That's primarily the focus, dealing with our two areas of concern: underage drinkers and intoxicated people," she said. "At a brick-and-mortar location, you have typically an hour or an hour and a half with that customer to make sure you're doing this properly. We have seconds.
"So our festival alcohol sellers, with the information you have with what to do in those few seconds — deciding 'What do I do?' — is critical to make it a safe process."
Before retiring in 2012, former Friends of the Festival operations manager Don Sharp served as a kind of mentor to Shostak. When he left his position, he gave her his floral-upholstered easy chair, which provides practically the only splash of color in her trailer-office.
The process of preparing for Riverbend is a nearly year-round affair, Sharp said, and during the 356 days leading up to the next opening day, the director of sales position, in particular, is responsible for much of the planning and skillful time management that keep all the cogs turning in sync. Shostak's positive attitude and dogged adherence to layers of scheduling, he said, have made her a key figure in ensuring the festival is ready by opening night.
"I think she makes the job easier because of the attention to detail she has," Sharp said. "You can present her with a very difficult challenge, and she'll never say, 'It can't be done.' She'll say, 'Let's take a look at it.'"
Shostak acknowledged that much of her effort probably goes unnoticed by guests, but she doesn't mind the anonymity, so long as they have a pleasant experience.
"I have a very Disney mentality — it's all about service; it's all about quality," she said. "It's not just a job, it's a way of life to make sure everything comes together properly.
"A lot of these details happen, and nobody knows who did it, and I'm OK with that because behind the scenes, I'm still seeing the result with the gratification of that planning and hard work."
Contact Casey Phillips at cphil lips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.