It wasn't an April Fool's joke, but it felt like one for hundreds of people who spent Saturday, April 1, at the Fort Lauderdale Pizza Festival.
The inaugural event, which took place at the city's War Memorial Auditorium, was successful at drawing large and eager crowds, many of whom stood in line for hours without receiving any food or drinks. In reaction, dozens of attendees swarmed the festival's Facebook page Sunday to report their experiences. Numerous public posts on the page, including some pictured below, have since been deleted.
Hollywood resident Aurora Dominguez traveled with friends and family to attend the festival but left after spending several hours without eating.
"I went to this event hoping for a relaxing day with my friends and my mom, who was visiting from Puerto Rico," Dominguez says. "Even my husband came. We were hungry and so disappointed with the lack of organization. I was sad to see such a great idea go wrong, because it could've been awesome."
Fewer than ten pizza vendors were represented. The iconic Mellow Mushroom drew the longest lines. Spris Artisanal Pizza, which brought its cute truck, Ape (pronounced ah-pei), offered tasty pies, but the wait was excruciating. Others, such as Pie-Zan's Pizza and Doughboy's Pizzeria, worked feverishly to appease the crowds.
In March, New Times reported on the launch of the Fort Lauderdale Pizza Festival, a new ticketed food fest that would offer guests the opportunity to sample food from more than 100 vendors specializing in pizza and chicken wings, along with craft beer. The event was organized by Lais Pontes, founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based Pontes Group and a Forbes "30 Under 30" honoree.
General-admission ticket-holders and an estimated 500 VIP ticket-holders with early access to the festival at noon paid anywhere from $30 to $75 per person to receive four slices of pizza and eight beer or nonalcoholic drink samples. More than 400 people also purchased tickets through Groupon, where they paid a discounted rate to receive two to four slices of pizza and up to two beverages, alongside "unlimited samples."
The day after the festival, numerous attendees aired their complaints on social media. They mentioned overcrowding, poor organization, inadequate beer samples, and, of course, an extreme lack of pizza. Many guests posted messages saying they received nothing when festival vendors began running low on food around 3 p.m. — though the festival ran until 6.
In an email interview, Pontes addressed several issues regarding the festival's biggest failures. "As a first-year festival, there were certainly growing pains. The massive success in attendance caused lines at the door, often seen at other high-volume and popular events. In addition, there were several food vendors that did not show, which caused longer than anticipated food lines and less variety than expected."
Fort Lauderdale resident James Darst stood in line for more than three hours Saturday. "It was the most unorganized and crammed event I've ever been to," Darst says. "We waited for over an hour in the beating sun [for entry]... and waited in line [for food] for well over an hour to be told that they were out of pizza. They were out of pizza at a pizza festival. I am so disgusted, and I feel like they stole my money. There were so many better things I could have done with my Saturday other than waiting in line."
According to Pontes, although lines were long and supply ran low in the festival's final hour, food samples were available until the end of the event at 6 p.m., and beer, alcohol, and beverage samples ran low early when attendees discovered a way to wipe their sample cards clean, resulting in unauthorized reuse. Pontes said she will use a different system for sampling in the future to avoid similar problems.
To appease unhappy customers, Pontes has offered a way to voice concerns. Email comments, questions, complaints, and refund requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We will work diligently to review all of the issues and resolve them quickly and efficiently," Pontes said. "We welcome any and all feedback from attendees and promise to read each one. We apologize to anyone who was unhappy and promise to improve the attendee experience for 2018."
For Pontes, who also received supportive feedback, it's a lesson learned. "We have already begun receiving calls from numerous pizza restaurants, partners, and sponsors in the South Florida area and beyond with interest to participate and assist us in growing for 2018 to accommodate the demand," she said. "As the need for additional pizza vendors and long lines have been the greatest issues brought to our attention, we feel confident that this new support and a streamlined process to deal with the high volume of people will allow us to come back next year stronger and better prepared to serve our attendees."
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