Eat, drink and be merry: Food holidays provide delicious celebrations all year
There's always a tasty reason to fete — but who dreamed up celebrations for empanadas and chocolate-covered cashews, and why?
Any day on social media, a quick scroll through a news feed will reveal that today's the day to celebrate yet another food.
In fact, today we’re celebrating National Hard Candy Day and tomorrow we’ll have moved onto National Sangria Day.
A decade ago, however, specific days were not dedicated to celebrate food and drink on such a scale.
The first official food holiday award should be given to Thanksgiving when Americans celebrate the harvest bounty that they reap from their local supermarket shelves each fourth Thursday in November. This holiday was first declared by George Washington in 1789, but it wasn’t until 1941 that Congress passed a law to cement it as the fourth Thursday in November.
Many years later, seeing the success of this food holiday — 77% of all turkeys are sold in November, according to Nielsen — in 1984 President Ronald Reagan inaugurated the third Sunday in July as National Ice Cream Day. Since its inception, the day has become a phenomenon where companies and consumers expect all kinds of ice cream promotions, like free scoops of the frozen treat in celebration of the holiday.
At the same time that Reagan’s holiday began to gather online attention, the internet began to rule daily life and the pace of food holidays picked up significantly. Today, there is at least one official food holiday for each day in the calendar year.
“I wanted to find a way to celebrate food by informing people about things in food that people weren’t talking about.”
Creator of Foodimentary
Jaded consumers might think these holidays came out of the blue as social media personalities, trade associations, and individual companies decided they needed a day to celebrate the wonders of their products. The truth is, they’re largely right.
“Part of our job is to make news when they don’t have any product releases or things like that, and food holidays are a great way — but you have to pick the right one,” Sarah Walters, a public relations manager at RMD Advertising told Food Dive. “I mean, there are some strange ones that you would never think would be a holiday, but they are.”
From National Coffee Day (September 29) to National Grits for Breakfast Day (September 2) or National Pizza with the Works Except Anchovies Day (November 12), the motto with food holidays seems to be if you love it, celebrate it.
“It’s a little bit of just keeping up with the Joneses,” John Stanton, a food marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University, told Food Dive.
But not everyone can keep up. For example, when National Tater Tot Day (February 2) appeared on the radar, a Dallas Observer reporter called up the folks at Ore-Ida to get more information about the day. The company responded that it had no idea the holiday even existed, despite the fact that the reporter said social media was lit up with consumers who were delighted by the prospect of having a day dedicated to crispy potato cylinders.
A different way to celebrate
John-Bryan Hopkins of Foodimentary, who began his food holiday career in 2006 — before food holidays that were not officiated by official acts of Congress had become an online mainstay — was looking for a different way to celebrate food in which everyone could partake in.
“I wanted to find a way to celebrate food by informing people about things in food that people weren’t talking about,” Hopkins told Food Dive. He explained that as soon as he started attributing a particular date to a food as a “holiday,” people got excited and his website traffic took off, prompting him to give every day its own designated food or drink to celebrate.
For most holidays, Hopkins said, it took three years to get them cemented in the public consciousness — and for celebrations beyond a mention on his calendar. In just a matter of a couple of years, he said everyone from PR firms to individuals to celebrities started celebrating their favorite food-related holiday. Many even sent him requests to add dates to his calendar.
“Let me tell you who makes a big deal about (holidays): Hallmark and Mother’s Day. I mean, it’s a big deal, and it’s purely invented!”
Marketing professor, St. Joseph's University
But with so many options to choose from, how can companies judiciously choose which holidays to push?
Walters explained most of the time, it’s trial and error that defines marketing choices around certain holidays. Although she admits to one or two swings and misses in her career, Walters said that one of the more successful holidays she helped develop is National Pork Rind Appreciation Day. The holiday was a marketing push for Rudolph Foods, the biggest pork rind producer in the world. The company works with The Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund to provide money for retired NFL football players in need.
Since pigskins go with pigskins, the holiday has been celebrated for the last eight years on Super Bowl Sunday. However, Walters said, it took six or seven years of consistently hosting the celebration and hundreds of thousands of consumer votes before the holiday was codified and received a political designation in 2010. The company encouraged pork rind lovers to vote online in order to get the ballot to the floor in Washington where senators voted on whether to legally make it a nationally recognized event, which they did.
Not all food holidays take such legwork. According to Walters, it’s all about influence, and those who have the visibility on social media — like Hopkins — are able to transform an ordinary day into a foodie celebration overnight.
Making a day worth celebrating
So what makes the difference between a cursory social media holiday dedicated to a product and a bonanza that retailers, consumers, and the government buy into? According to Stanton, George Harrison had the answer all along in his 1987 hit "Got My Mind Set on You."
“ 'It’s going to take time, a whole lot of precious time,' ” Stanton said. “And then he says, ‘It’s going to take money, a whole lot of money,’ and that’s the answer.”
Stanton explained there hasn’t been enough of either of those ingredients to transform food holidays into something really lucrative like Halloween or Valentine’s Day.
According to him, consumers aren’t aware of these food holidays because companies don’t make a big enough deal about them.
“Let me tell you who makes a big deal about (holidays): Hallmark and Mother’s Day. I mean, it’s a big deal, and it’s purely invented!” Stanton said.
Hopkins disagrees, saying that designating a day for a food makes consumers “exponentially” more interested — even if all he does is simply offer a few tidbits of information about a food.
Through the years, not much has changed in his approach, except that his original list of 175 holidays has expanded to more than 365. Hopkins continues to pursue his food calendar as a hobby, but said that nowadays, he doesn't create new holidays; the calendar “takes care of itself.” Occasionally, he said he’ll add new holidays, but he rarely gets rid of them. A quick search on Super Bowl Sunday 2018 reveals Pork Rind Appreciation Day nestled next to National Homemade Soup Day and National Stuffed Mushroom Day.
“When you think about food, it’s related to family and nostalgia, so you always think about recipes and the fond memories attached to it. We’re also a big foodie culture, so holidays help us learn about the history of foods.”
Public relations manager, RMD Advertising
The fact that there is more than one holiday per day doesn’t seem to bother Hopkins. He explained that while some holidays are codified nationally, others are only recognized in certain states, and still others — like National Tater Tot Day — were simply invented by him. Over time, this approach has caused overlaps. But that just adds to the fun, he said.
”I just like them all. They’re like your children,” he said.
In particular, Hopkins said he loves both the days that allow people to forgive themselves for loving indulgent foods like Nutella, potato chips and pie. He also likes the days that are not about a food, but instead engage with the kitchen periphery like Clean Out Your Fridge Day (November 15).
Walters said the fun of food holidays is they allow marketers and PR companies to use a different angle to talk about food, rather than simply branding the product and endlessly extolling the values of its ingredients.
“When you think about food, it’s related to family and nostalgia, so you always think about recipes and the fond memories attached to it," she said. "We’re also a big foodie culture, so holidays help us learn about the history of foods.”
So what’s the point?
Although it’s generally agreed upon that food holidays are fun, the underlying question is: Are they effective?
“I don’t think there are any downsides really except for maybe it distracts people from doing more effective things like basic, straight, run-of-the-mill marketing,” Stanton said.
He said that although companies should not undersell the importance of a codified food holiday for PR to drive attention to a brand, it is the everyday marketing that is going to keep a company afloat long term and continue to sell its products.
“The industry itself, the little group of people, are going to be very excited about (food holidays). For the most part, it has very little impact on consumers,” he said.
Walters said from her perspective, these holidays are key.
“To me, that’s a fun and exciting way to talk about food that’s not so involved with selling a product. ...If it sells a product, well, food has to be bought somewhere.”
Creator of Foodimentary
“It can be really, really successful to drum up that buzz and get the word out,” she said. She said many times, the holidays can represent the biggest marketing push for brands.
Hopkins, on the other hand, said he never considered the marketing power of his calendar.
“To me, that’s a fun and exciting way to talk about food that’s not so involved with selling a product,” he said. However, he said that it's better if a food holiday serves both purposes. “If it sells a product, well, food has to be bought somewhere.”
At the very least, consumers seem to be receptive to the idea of food holidays. It’s a way to examine food through a unique lens and dedicate a day to a favorite treat.
Plus, food companies benefit when they're trying to sell their products as well, Stanton said.
“It gives them something to talk about when you’re going in to see the retailer," he said. "Think about how boring it is if you’re a salesman and you go in…and it’s the same old thing every month.”