NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Chipotle (CMG) - Get Report kicks off the fifth year of its "Cultivate Festival" of food and music this weekend, and its benefits go beyond just bringing together fans of the chain's burritos and salad bowls.
"Cultivate," as company execs refer to it, will feature 26 hours of live music, celebrity chef demos, new recipes from Chipotle's stable of chefs, and attractions designed to bring awareness of food quality. The first stop will be in Phoenix, Ariz., followed by visits to Kansas City and Minneapolis. By visiting the event's attractions, which include a station with pig props and information on how livestock in the country is raised, attendees can "learn a free burrito."
For juggernaut Chipotle, the event is partly marketing for a brand that has prided itself on dishing out healthy fast food. But it's also meant to be a giant community event, not unlike Woodstock, where attendees numbering in the thousands can share recipes and discuss issues impacting America's food industry.
"The original idea of the event was to create a forum where we could bring people in and engage with them primarily through entertainment, with also a little knowledge, and make them more conscious about food and where it comes from," said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold in an interview with TheStreet.
The popularity of the event has been growing each year, which interestingly coincides with sluggish sales and lagging stock price performance at Chipotle's former parent McDonald's (MCD) - Get Report.
Attendance for last year's three-city Cultivate Festival reached 70,000, up from 16,000 at a single event held in Chicago back in Oct. 2011. About 56% of last year's attendees received "passports," which are obtained by completing visits to the food knowledge attractions and can be redeemed for free burritos. In other words, people are not just coming to listen to the music and rub elbows with celebrity chefs, they are interested in Chipotle's messaging underlying the fast food it serves.
This growing interest by consumers in food origin, which Chipotle encourages with clever videos and events such as Cultivate, has translated into tasty sales for the burrito giant. Since Chipotle's first Cultivate festival in October 2011, its stock has skyrocketed 130%. Same-restaurant sales growth reached 16.8% in 2014, quicker than the 11.2% rise in 2011.
Meantime, McDonald's stock has gained a modest 9% during that same time span, as its U.S. sales have come under pressure amid concerns about food quality and high calorie counts.
Cultivate isn't just all just for show, however. Chipotle does stand to reap several more tangible benefits from it as well.
The first could be a jolt in sales in the markets after a Cultivate festival wraps up as attendees spread the word about a growing chain that believe it or not, many people still have not visited.
"We don't necessarily see definitive spikes in sales, and that's not really the point -- the point is much more an educational thing," explained Arnold. "That said, the events also happen in the spring and summer, early fall months which are seasonally speaking busier periods for us -- our business tends to rise during that time anyway."
Another benefit is that Cultivate allows Chipotle's team of experienced chefs, led by classically-trained chef and founder Steve Ells, to try out new recipes on consumers. Chipotle's menu has remained remarkably unchanged in the 20 years since it was founded, but that doesn't mean the chain isn't continually experimenting.
This year, Cultivate will be featuring a kale salad dressed with chipotle-honey vinaigrette and a gordita with meat and pineapple, two items that could easily pop up on a local Chipotle menu.
Cultivate has served as a source for menu inspiration before. "We created something at one of the earlier Cultivate events, a barbacoa chili, and we had that in a handful of markets during the fall and winter months after that event because we really liked it," pointed out Arnold.
The company's emerging Asian food concept Shophouse, which now numbers 10 locations in California, Maryland and Washington, DC, will also be offering a rice bowl at the event in order to drive consumer interest in a chain that is likely to be more prominent to Chipotle's future moving forward.
Chipotle's fast casual pizza concept Pizzeria Locale will also be featured at Cultivate for the first time this year. Folks from the Pizzeria Locale concept, which currently has two locations in Chipotle's home market of Denver, will appear at the July 18 Cultivate festival being held in Kansas City. Later in the summer following that event, Pizzeria Locale will open in the Kansas City market.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.