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Food & Drink

California soul-food cookout fiasco leads to $11 million lawsuit

An aerial view shows the bustling Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton on July 8, 2023. | Source: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

A Bay Area festival celebrating soul food and R&B music turned into a fiasco with a number of wild allegations, including guests arguing over nonexistent front-row seats, security guards abandoning their posts and the event’s emcee getting barred from the stage for telling raunchy jokes, court documents claim.

These are just some of the claims that organizers of the California Soul-Food Cookout and Festival made in an $11 million federal lawsuit against the Alameda County Fairgrounds, a sprawling venue in the city of Pleasanton. The fairgrounds, where the festival organizer paid to host the Sept. 17-18, 2022, event, allegedly made a series of unfulfilled promises and offending demands that cost the organizer millions and harmed its reputation so badly that it no longer hosts events, according to the suit. Right now, the case is winding its way through the courts, and the legal filings describe a string of bizarre failures, like a local version of the notorious 2017 Fyre Festival

The trouble began long before the festival gates opened, according to the lawsuit. The fairgrounds gave organizers a seating chart for the concert area that included four entire front-row sections, as well as a VIP seating area—none of which existed. Not knowing this, festival organizers sold seats listed on the chart.

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When the event began, the lawsuit further alleges, attendees flowed into the amphitheater only to find that the premier front-row seats they had purchased were nowhere to be found. That set off a cutthroat game of musical chairs as guests saddled with reservations for nonexistent spots took the next-closest seats. The ousted owners of those seats then pushed other people out, creating a domino effect that spread to the rear.

The Alameda County Fairgrounds and its attorney in the case did not reply to a request for comment on the claims made in the lawsuit. The attorney for California Soul Food Cookout and Festival, Inc., also declined to comment.

Unsurprisingly, people arriving at the festival were upset to find others sitting in their seats and refusing to move. Some sought security guards to help resolve the disputes, but it soon became clear that the fairground had failed to bring in the number of security personnel it promised in the event contract, according to the lawsuit. 

Further, court documents claim, security staff were young and ineffective, and some even removed their uniforms and fled the venue altogether.

As the remaining security guards rushed to help resolve the seating issues, the venue gates were left unguarded, allowing guests without tickets to flood in, snagging even more of the disputed seats, organizers allege. Meanwhile, nobody was checking bags, and at least one person entered with a firearm.

Festival staff also jumped in to corral the seating pandemonium, but that left their vending booths empty. Two juice stands, one dessert stand, a fruit stand and the merchandise table all went unstaffed during the entire festival, according to the lawsuit. All those unsold goods added up to a loss of over $1.2 million, organizers estimate.

Unhappy Customers

The empty vendor stands apparently vexed attendees. 

“Y’all gotta get more vendors next time. Every vendor there was at least a hour and a half or a 2 hour wait,” one Instagram user commented on a California Soul-Food Cookout post about the event. 

On the festival’s Facebook posts, other attendees complained that the seating was a nightmare, musicians were hours late and the sound system was horrible.

“We should all get our money back,” one commenter wrote. “Never again will I attend sloppy unprofessional concerts like this.”

People watch a performance at the Alameda County Fairgrounds Amphitheater in Pleasanton. | Source: Courtesy Alameda County Fairgrounds

Still, the event wasn’t a total flop. Other social media commenters celebrated performances from singers Kevin Ross, Marsha Ambrosius and others.

Max Nuval, meanwhile, ran a pop-up stand for the Max Alchemy barbeque restaurant he owned. He faced a confusing start to the festival when there was no security at the gate he arrived at for setup, leaving him waiting for over 30 minutes. Eventually, he made his way to another gate, although he’s unsure whether the mistake was his or the venue’s.

But once he got up and running, Nuval said, things went smoothly. The restaurant pop-ups were located in another section of the fairgrounds, away from the performances, so he didn’t see the amphitheater chaos firsthand.

“Everything was fine on our side,” Nuval told The Standard.

Too Raunchy To Perform

Meanwhile, the pandemonium in the amphitheater bleachers began to make its way to the stage. With no security guarding the backstage area, an intoxicated person ambled in and accosted a backup dancer, the lawsuit says.

Amid all this, comedian and emcee Mario Hodge made his way to the stage to crack some jokes. But just an hour after the scheduled start of the festival, fairgrounds staff demanded that Hodge be barred from taking the mic again, the suit alleges, as his profanity and adult material made VIPs uncomfortable. Workers said the order to muzzle Hodge came straight from fairgrounds leadership and that if the festival didn’t comply, it wouldn’t be able to get venue permits in the future.

Organizers then asked if Hodge could perform again as long as he committed to a curse-free set. They were told no.

Hodge declined to comment about the events of that day, citing the ongoing litigation.

That conflict constituted racial discrimination against Hodge and the festival as a whole, organizers allege. The fairgrounds treated the comedian and the event as a whole differently because it was a celebration of Black culture, according to the lawsuit.

The other claims in the suit include breach of contract and violation of free speech. Attorneys for the fairgrounds and the soul food festival are scheduled to hold a settlement conference in May 2024.

Noah Baustin can be reached at