Joe Erwin dishes the latest on “Food for Thought” and a little on cooking

By christinewatson / / We were lucky enough to be treated to a brief a Q&A with Joe Erwin, President and Founder of Erwin Penland. In addition to creating work for brands like Denny’s and Verizon Wireless, the South Carolina-based agency hosts an annual leadership and innovation conference called Food for Thought. Now in its seventh year, Food For Thought draws entrepreneurs and industry leaders from all over for three days of total immersion into all the city of Greenville, focusing on inspiration, leadership, philanthropy and of course, food. ————————– Let’s start with the basics. What’s Food for Thought? Food for Thought is a national thought leadership conference that Erwin Penland created seven years ago. It takes place over 2 1/2 days every spring, and participants come to Greenville, SC from across the country for what we call an “unconventional convention.” Erwin Penland is known for helping our clients build relationships with consumers, with kind of a ‘high-tech meets high-touch’ approach to marketing solutions and client service. Food for Thought is how we bring that to life outside our four walls, so to speak. We only accept about 100 participants each year, so we can deliver a personal, interactive experience for each attendee. We’ve all been to conferences in oxygen-less hotel meeting rooms that could be anywhere in America, where the food was something to be endured. We wanted to be the opposite of that! What should attendees expect to see at this year’s event? How will this year’s Food For Thought be different from previous years? It’s our goal to surprise you at every turn – and by the end, for you to even surprise yourself. Every year is different, but we always have a variety of challenging, inspirational speakers who are using creativity to change the world, plus great food and wine, amazing attendees who arrive excited about what’s about to happen, and great variety of different venues. It’s pretty special. This year, as always, I expect that attendees will see – will experience – presenters and activities that challenge conventional thinking. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; Rachael Chong of Catchafire and Adam Garone of Movember; a Digital Brand Panel with pacesetters from Coca-Cola, 20th Century Fox, GE, Michelin and Capital One. And that’s not even half of it. This year’s presenters all come from backgrounds of entrepreneurship and innovation – some have built massive brands and others have focused on helping small organizations or causes succeed by changing the way they think And they’re all doing things in a way that will make each attendee think differently about their own situation. Even after 6 years of this, I’m always struck by what I learn, things I didn’t even know I needed to learn. Why Greenville? Why not host the conference elsewhere? New York maybe. New York is cool. Greenville is home to one of Erwin Penland’s headquarters, and it’s a perfect fit for Food for Thought’s core focus on innovation. For one thing, it’s beautiful here. We do this event in late April, when much of the country is still hanging on to winter, so attendees step off the plane and suddenly they’re in Technicolor. Everything’s green, dogwoods are blooming, it’s warm. So it doesn’t hurt that you’re going to have this experience in a glorious setting. Plus, Greenville is a city that reinvented itself, to enormous success. When the textile business began to collapse in the south, this region really felt the effects of it. Pollution, economic decay, crime. But a group of business and local government leaders determined to reimagine and reinvent the city, and they did. Today, Greenville is one of the most talked about mid-sized cities in America. It’s home to more international business per capita than anywhere in the country; it’s a dynamic food city, and has miles of urban trails and bicycle paths; there’s a vivid arts community, and a sprawling urban park that winds along the path of the Reedy River to our downtown waterfalls. So the setting here is a proof point that creativity and innovation can create dramatic, positive change. All this being said, I agree with you 100% that New York is cool. Super cool in fact! I love that EP now has a major presence in the city and that we are growing there. We’ve talked about doing a version of Food For Thought in the city. It would be a bigger challenge from a logistics and cost standpoint but that doesn’t mean we won’t consider it. It would take some outside the box thinking, but we’re pretty good at that. According to the Food for Thought website, participants should expect to engage in a more “personal nature” for all their interactions. How does this play out? As I mentioned, we keep it to a relatively small number of attendees (we refer to them as guests, actually), and that’s certainly part of it. Constantly changing venues – from a minor league ballpark, to BMW’s North American Driving Track, to a restored Mill building on the banks of Greenville’s downtown river – also has an impact; it’s hard to zone out when all of your senses are constantly being engaged. And finally, the role food plays in our conference is really at the heart of it. There’s a very specific reason we made food an underpinning to a conference focused on inspiration and thought leadership. It’s that people are just more open to ideas, and one another, over a meal. It’s the age-old concept of breaking bread together. You really do become more open to new ideas, less guarded about sharing your own, and it goes a long way toward making it more personal. What do you do, outside of the professional world, to stay creative? I cook. To be a successful cook I read extensively about recipes, farming, food issues around the world, and just about anything that has to do with how we consume food. And I love the food shopping aspect since it’s the selection of ingredients that allows for the most creativity to take place in the kitchen. The other thing I do stay creative is to spend time with creative people, people who are constantly challenging convention. They inspire me to always be open to change, and to look for ways to use creativity to improve. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to launch Food For Thought in the first place; it’s inspiring to see the amazingly creative people who come to the conference each spring.