Business

Despite social media backlash, organizers vow to bring back food festival

Madison Thornton and her boyfriend were excited to attend the first North Meets South Farms, Food & Drink Festival earlier this month. They thought the idea behind the event was important, especially since it was the first of its kind. They were looking forward to experiencing tastings from local breweries and vineyards, and Ms. Thornton said she was led to believe the event would feature a good variety.

The reality, she said, was disappointing. 

“When we first walked through the door, I was really underwhelmed,” said Ms. Thornton, 23, of Speonk.

The festival yielded mixed reviews from patrons, vendors and even its organizers.

Despite difficulty obtaining donations and sponsors, the organizers said that over 100 vendors purchased spots at the festival and that, by and large, it was a success.

Patrons like Ms. Thornton, however, took issue on several fronts, arguing that prices were too high and not conducive to a family outing. Taking to social media, they complained about a $10 parking fee mandated by a contractual agreement between the organizers and the event venue, Long Island Sports Park, as well as additional expenses beyond the $25 admission fee.

Ms. Thornton said the event website did not explain what would be included with the admission fee and that she did not see nearly as many vendors as were advertised. Still, she said, she and her boyfriend decided to give it try.

“As we’re walking around,” she said, “we begin to realize this is similar to the size of a farmer’s market that we go to for free that’s in our town every week.”

Event organizers Vanessa Rebentisch and Monique Cutone, who co-own North Fork Event Company, said the rampant criticism on social media is unwarranted.

Ms. Cutone, a professional face and body artist, said scrutiny of the event, which was designed to highlight the East End’s farm-to-table options, was unfortunate, given that this was their first year.

“I don’t think that this scrutiny came from the masses; I think the scrutiny came from a handful of people that just wanted to continue to scrutinize the event,” she said.

North Meets South organizers Monique Cutone and Vanessa Rebentisch of Southold. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

Amenities included with admission were live music, hayrides with multiple drop points, interactive entertainment for children — such as “Farmer Fred,” who led potato sack races, parachute games and tug-of-war matches — an exotic wild animal petting zoo with a “Birds of Prey” show and access to the vendors. Children, who were not charged admission, could climb a rock wall, enter a bounce house, take pony rides, participate in candle-making and receive henna tattoos and face painting for the day, for an additional $5 to $12 per activity. Parents could also purchase a pay-one-price bracelet that would allow children to use the bounce house all day. Tickets were not transferable between Saturday and Sunday, but organizers said that, going forward, tickets will be good for both days of the event.

Ms. Cutone and Ms. Rebentisch said their goal was to make the event as family-friendly and low-cost as possible, but that certain vendors demanded more to be featured at the event.

“We required all the vendors not to charge more than $10 for a pony ride or $10 for a pay-one-price bounce house bracelet for the entire day,” said Ms. Cutone, 34. “We didn’t want to be charging kids that wouldn’t want to participate in that kind of thing.”

Ms. Rebentisch, who also co-owns Bantam Creek Oyster Company in Southold, said it was unrealistic to assume food and drink would be included in the price of admission.

“A lot of people, I think, are under the impression that we’re a big corporation,” said Ms. Rebentisch, 33. “I think, for us, for this first annual at least, there was a lot of negativity coming in … We did a lot for two ladies with six kids between the two of us.”

Ms. Cutone echoed that sentiment, stating that the goal was to figure out ways to not only promote their own businesses, but also positively impact other local enterprises. The women reached out to brick-and-mortar companies including craft vendors, makers and artisans, as well as mobile ones, like food trucks. They had two breweries as well as Giovanni Borghese, owner of Castello di Borghese Vineyard in Cutchogue, taking part.

“There was some criticism from the first day,” Mr. Borghese said in an interview last week, though he praised the women for being “boots on the ground” and making changes as needed. “I was happy to be there and happy to participate. The first time doing anything, you’re going to learn at least a few things the hard way.”

Some vendors, however, had a different experience.

“I was willing to take the chance and support local,” Hampton Bays artist Jackie Maloney said after the event. She added, though, that she hadn’t realized the organizers would be charging an entry fee and fears she may have lost customers as a result. Ms. Maloney, who participates in 30 to 40 art festivals across the East Coast each year, said North Meets South was among the most poorly organized events she’s ever participated in.

“It looked so good on social media, and sounded great on the radio, but people showed up feeling taken advantage of,” she said.

A man enjoys a tractor ride at the Calverton festival. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner)

The organizers did not claim the event went off without a hitch both days, but they did say they felt it went well overall – better on Sunday than Saturday, despite having lost about 25 vendors, without warning, overnight.

By Sunday, Long Island Sports Park owner Dean Del Prete agreed to waive the $10 parking fee.

“In almost every event we have there, we do have a parking fee. We reached a decision to say, ‘Hey, people are complaining about it, they walked out, just turned away,’ so it doesn’t resonate to keep it,” he said this week. “That was a no-brainer, to just respect your customer.”

Mr. Del Prete credited the women for removal of the fee because, he said, they ended up profiting less without it.

“They weren’t concerned about making money,” he said. “They were concerned about the vendors doing well and they were concerned about the customers being happy.”

Ms. Cutone and Ms. Rebentisch admitted it was challenging to come up with a fair price point for the inaugural event, but that they fully plan to host the festival again next year.

Mr. Borghese said that knowledge of event scale and pricing only comes with experience. “I’m already on board for next year,” he said. “They should walk away with their heads held high, feeling proud.”

Ms. Thornton is unlikely to attend the event again, she said, due mostly to the way the organizers handled her feedback. Rather than respond properly to her review on Facebook, her personal email or her comments on an Instagram photo they posted after the event, she said they deleted the comment thread and ultimately blocked her — providing little opportunity for the festival’s future improvement or for an open dialogue.

Though they did provide a few brief responses and offered Ms. Thornton free tickets for next year’s event, she said they mostly questioned her and did not take responsibility for deleting a portion of the comment thread on their photo.

“Nothing I said was in bad taste,” Ms. Thornton said. “I didn’t use any vulgar language. I was just giving an honest review.”

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