DEL MAR — A decision to allow KAABOO Del Mar to use a company other than the Del Mar Fairgrounds’ contracted food service provider was delayed another month after a vote to uphold an earlier denial seemed imminent at the Feb. 13 meeting of the 22nd District Agricultural Association.
At least three directors appeared adamantly opposed to the move, with one suggesting ending the three-day entertainment festival.
Three others seemed to support approval, while another didn’t commit specifically either way during board member discussion. With the ninth member absent, the decision could have ended in a tie, which generally is the same result as a failed vote.
Premier Food Services has for decades provided hospitality-related workers for events at the fairgrounds, where KAABOO takes place in September.
Its employees usually work the San Diego County Fair, summer and fall thoroughbred horse race meets and many private events. Last year they were hired for the racetrack’s inaugural hosting of the Breeders’ Cup.
Premier was a co-concessionaire with Best Beverage Company during the first KAABOO in 2015.
KAABOO representatives said communication between the two operators was problematic so the organizers used Premier exclusively the following year.
Nathan Prenger, vice president of KAABOO operations, said that resulted in a staffing shortfall, which created long wait times at bars, serving locations not ready when the event opened, unsecured product, a 2 percent post-event cash shortage and complaints about employees.
As it was contractually allowed to do, KAABOO paid Premier a $150,000 buyout, issued a request for proposals and used Spectrum Staffing Services in 2017.
Premier workers were given first rights for jobs and 185 of the 204 applicants were offered positions. Those who worked the event described myriad problems.
One bartender filed charges against a volunteer worker for assault. Others claimed the working conditions were filthy, some Spectrum employees pocketed cash and gave away drinks, workers disappeared for extended periods of time but still received an equal portion of pooled tips, some customers were overserved and a few bars were set up in locations where there were few, if any, customers.
KAABOO denied most of the allegations, saying Spectrum is more experienced and better suited to meet its needs and provide guests with a positive experience. Prenger said less than 2 percent of the more than 500 bartenders who worked the event have complained.
“We have proven that we are the company that can do this right,” said Maverick Smalley, vice president of Spectrum’s musical festival decision.
Whether that statement is accurate depends on who one talks to or which online comments are believed. Board President Stephen Shewmaker and Director Russ Penniman said they experienced long lines in 2016 but not in 2017.
“I can say without a doubt that the beverage service, lines and attitude (of all employees) was the best it has ever been this past year,” Craig Nelson wrote in response to a The Coast News article.
Yelp and Google reviews are mixed. Some Yelp comments included “KAABOO totally oversold and underdelivered” and “total lack of staff and organization.”
“The food was hit or miss and yes, the drinks expensive — and supplies scarce (on) the last day. But, the bars were plentiful and the lines were always pretty short,” another attendee wrote.
Some board members took exception to Smalley’s comment that the company “can do this right.”
Director Lee Haydu said she visited several different bars during the three days and she and her 28-year-old daughter were never required to show wristbands that proved their IDs had been checked.
Although unrelated to food and beverage, she also noted problems with security and transportation. Her colleagues said understated problems in those other areas have negatively impacted KAABOO’s credibility.
“I just see the pattern and it’s not a great pattern, to be honest,” Director Lisa Barkett said.
“I’m not always someone who trusts all Yelp posts, but when you see … 110 reviews I think that has some value,” Director Fred Schenk said. “It doesn’t sound like you’ve gotten it right entirely.
“I haven’t heard anybody here from KAABOO stand here and tell us … there are some things that we didn’t get right,” he added. “No acknowledgment, no sense of intent to try to do it better. What I’ve heard is blaming Premier for the first two years but not taking responsibility for some of the things that we saw. So that concerns me. … I want to see some accountability.”
Prenger said he has acknowledged and improved past operational issues. For example, noise has been reduced significantly since year one and crowd flow and safety plans were adjusted after the 2016 event, when two outdoor concerts ended at the same time. When attendees from both tried to enter a venue for another performance, law enforcement was called in.
Prenger said he also admits the transportation plan — specifically the ride-hailing component — still needs work.
“By all means we don’t feel we’re perfect,” he said. “We acknowledge the fact that we don’t get it right all the time.”
Director David Watson said Premier has a track record of excellence in events large and small, national and international.
“Spectrum’s behavior is, at best, incompetent and negligent and, at worst, condoning criminal conduct,” he added. “And then you have KAABOO. The first year was a disaster when it comes to noise. … They have never complied with our noise ordinance.”
He said KAABOO was “chastising Premier for their incompetence” the same year of the crowd control problem and last year, despite being told by officials in Del Mar that the ride-hailing setup they were proposing was not going to work, “they did it anyway and it did not work.”
“So, in my opinion, KAABOO is the one with the track record of … poor management, poor planning, poor skills, and they still haven’t gotten it right,” Watson said. “In my opinion, KAABOO has no credibility whatsoever because they have lied to this board repeatedly about key aspects of what’s going on, and as far as I’m concerned I think we ought to consider terminating the contract and finding someone else.”
Shewmaker and Director Richard Valdez said they could support allowing the use of another vendor for at least one year to allow organizers a chance to work out some of the issues.
Shewmaker said he was reluctant to tell them who they have to hire because if something went wrong in 2018 they would be in a good position to blame the 22nd DAA.
Goldman said he and his colleagues were “really taken aback” by board member comments.
“We’re trying to be a good neighbor,” he said. “No one is trying to take these people’s jobs away. This is just trying to provide a good three-day experience for our guests.
“We’re hoping the board is as committed to working with KAABOO as KAABOO is to working with them,” he added. “We want to get to a yes on this. We like being in Del Mar. We want to make this work.”
Organizers submitted a letter in December seeking approval to use Spectrum for the 2018 and 2019 festivals. In January, Fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell denied the request so the decision could be made by the board.
Last month directors tabled the contract decision until this month, primarily because Barkett, who chairs the food and beverage subcommittee, was not at that meeting.
It was tabled again until March to allow both sides to work through some of the issues and reach a compromise that could potentially provide more guarantees for Premier employees.