DEL MAR — Issues about food and beverage operations at KAABOO Del Mar were raised again Nov. 14, the fourth time since July the topic has been discussed at the 22nd District Agricultural Association’s monthly meetings.
One bartender filed charges against a volunteer worker for assault during the three-day music festival in September, while others claimed the working conditions were filthy, some employees were pocketing cash and giving away drinks and workers were gone for extended periods of time but still received an equal portion of the pooled tips.
These were added to earlier complaints about overserving customers and overstaffing.
Premier Food Services has provided hospitality-related workers for events at the Del Mar Fairgrounds since 1990. This year KAABOO organizers, as they were contractually allowed to do, paid Premier a $150,000 buyout, issued a request for proposals and selected Spectrum Staffing Services.
All the accusations were made by longtime Premier employees, who according to the agreement, where given first rights to KAABOO jobs.
Event spokesman Joshua Goodman said only 14 of the 204 workers who submitted applications were not hired. Of those, some didn’t respond to offers or found other work by the time they received an offer.
Goodman said one bartender declined because of dissatisfaction with the assigned area. According to a presentation at the Nov. 14 meeting, some did not meet the job qualifications and turned down alternate positions they were offered.
“One of the things that was really frustrating to me is that many people were offered positions and jobs they don’t normally perform,” said Brigette Browning, president of the union that represents local food and beverage servers. “So if you were a bartender and you were offered a cook position you probably weren’t going to take it because you’re not qualified to be a cook.
“I personally believe it was because they were looking for a certain type of employee,” she added. “Our workforce is an older workforce that’s been here a long time, that’s very reliable, very experienced.
“But they’re not, I don’t believe, the kind of people that they want the image of KAABOO to be,” Browning said. “And that’s very disturbing to me because I think that integrity should be more important than perhaps the way that you look.”
Goodman said the issues with Premier “had nothing to do with any kind of image.”
“That’s just speculation and it isn’t the reality of the situation,” he added.
Nathan Prenger, KAABOO’s operations vice president, said wages and tip payouts have increased year over year, one bartender was fired for drinking on the job, no workers were terminated for theft and Alcohol Beverage Control was on site and issued no citations for overserving.
The report concluded that this year’s beverage operations, with Spectrum in control, were “more profitable and leaps ahead of previous years in terms of operational readiness, efficiency and guest experience.”
Board members were concerned about the allegations and equally bothered that an amendment to the KAABOO contract had been negotiated without their knowledge.
“I think it’s great what KAABOO has done in terms of bringing revenue to these cities and to our area,” Director Lisa Barkett said. “I have an issue though, because we’re breaking laws here.
“You can’t have your employees get into fist fights or attack somebody,” she added. “If there is stealing of money that’s a big issue.
“The bottom line is it’s on the premises of the state,” Barkett said. “I would not think that the state governor’s office would like to see these issues taking place. I understand the monetary but the monetary does not … exceed what happens to people and the law.”
Following the inaugural KAABOO in 2015, and after three public hearings, the 22nd DAA in April 2016 approved a five-year contract with five one-year options.
An amendment including the stipulations to use a concessionaire other than Premier was approved earlier this year.
“When that amendment came into light, we did not see it nor did we vote on it,” said Barkett, chairwoman of the food and beverage subcommittee.
Director David Watson said he was “significantly surprised” to accidentally learn about the amendment, especially after the board “negotiated ad nauseum” the original contract.
“I do not understand how anyone could think that the contract could be amended unilaterally without bringing the amendment to the board,” he said. “So could someone please explain that?”
Fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell said KAABOO organizers made it “perfectly clear” after the 2016 event that they were extremely unhappy with how food and beverage was run.
Feedback from attendees indicated dissatisfaction with long lines for beverages.
“What I don’t want to have happen is to lose an event like KAABOO because, quite frankly, it means millions of dollars to this facility,” Fennell said. “It means thousands of jobs in the community.”
Food and beverage sales are a major revenue source for the event and organizers “indicated fairly strongly” they wanted to control that aspect, Fennell said, adding that they were “very adamant that if we were going to continue to keep KAABOO on the grounds … that they wanted to go in a different direction with food and beverage.”
“I felt with my authority as the CEO that I had the ability to try to keep this contract alive,” he said. “So I negotiated with KAABOO in order to allow them to go out and utilize another concessionaire with the understanding that (Premier parent company) SMG would be kept whole … and that the Premier people would have first availability to work.”
“I appreciate that but … the board should be the ones to make these decisions,” Watson said. “It just bothers me greatly that it was done that way — not that the outcome would have been any different if it had come to the board — but we should have known about it.”
Director Richard Valdez called for more openness going forward.
“We’re dealing with two entities that are important to us,” he said. “KAABOO is important to us. Premier is extremely important to us. … We want to maintain the relationship with all of you.
“Had these issues been brought to the board in a timely manner so that we could have addressed them, we would have addressed them,” he added. “We did not hear any 2016 KAABOO problems until well into 2017 and that wasn’t, in my opinion, the correct way to handle the situation.
“I just want it to be a bit more transparent … so we’re dealing with these things ahead of time, not after the fact.”
Barkett suggested a Spectrum representative attend a meeting to comment on some of the problems raised by Premier employees.