It should have been a fun event filled with wonderful comfort food, but long lineups and food shortages turned the #TOGrilledCheeseFest into a public relations nightmare.
Patrons paid $45.19 each for “access to all-you-can-eat grilled cheese sandwiches and gourmet soup from participating vendors,” plus three beer samples. Instead, many people ended up eating only a handful of sample-sized bites, while others left with no food at all.
Here’s how the night went down from my perspective.
Full disclosure: My brother and I did not pay to attend this event. Joylister asked me to cover this event, and I agreed because it sounded like it would be fun. So while I can’t entirely sympathize with the thousands of people who didn’t get what they paid for, I can say that I understood their frustration.
5:00 – 5:30pm: This was the early entry time for media reps and contest winners. We didn’t actually make it to Roy Thomson Hall until about 5:25pm, and by then the line up for paying customers was around the block.
Once we got inside we were a bit confused. I guess I had been expecting a smaller, more intimate set-up… and to be honest, it’s been a while since I went to the hall. I forgot that their lobbies wrap around the outside of the stage area. This circular set up would have been cool if there were fewer people attending the event, but we could tell right away that it was going to get very crowded in there.
When we started talking to the vendors we noticed that one table had absolutely no food on it. When I spoke to the staff members at that booth, they told me that there had been a power surge and they weren’t able to start cooking yet. I don’t know if the power outage affected all of the vendors or just a few, because other booths were already teaming with crunchy cheesy sandwiches and warm pots of soup.
The first two sandwiches we tried were The Hawaiian Steak and the Wafella from Leslieville Cheese Market. The Hawaiian was just ok, but the Wafella (made with waffles, coconut Gouda and Nutella) was outstanding. I actually thought the size of these sandwiches were ok because I didn’t want to get too full too quickly.
We then moved on to the Soup and Such Cafe booth were I tried the Tomato Feta and Fresh Basil Soup. The company rep said that all of their soups are made with fresh veggies and homemade stock, which is nice. I thought the flavour was clean and fresh, but the consistency was a bit watery.
I was happy to see Mountain View Coffee at the event, and we sampled both their Caramel Biscotti and Vanilla flavours. These guys make seriously yummy coffee, and are worth checking out if you’re not familiar with them.
I guess the soup lines weren’t very busy in the first half hour, because that seems to be all I ate from 5:30 to 6:00pm. This is the Chicken Pot Pie soup from Zoup. I loved the concept of this soup, especially because it was served with a crumbly crust topping.
The last item that I sampled before the chaos began was the Beet and Fennel Soup from Beaver Cafe. This pureed soup had apples in it which added a brightness that you wouldn’t usually find in beet soup. It was very cold though, and I couldn’t finish it.
By this point in the evening (just after 6:00pm) the line ups started becoming a problem. Since there was no designated line up area for each booth, people started swarming in crowds and you couldn’t really tell who was waiting for what. The hallways became so congested that you barely had any elbow room, and people were forced to cut through the lines just to get from one side of the room to the other.
The lines at the beer vendors were the shortest all night, and we were able try the Tankhouse and Vanilla Porter beers from Mill St. Brewery.
The next sandwich that I tried was a 2-year-old cheddar grilled cheese with a caramelized onion chutney from Crème Fraîche Market Cafe. This was my favourite sandwich of the night, and the ladies at this booth were still happily cooking along despite the incredible line of people waiting to sample their food.
The line for the Cheesewerks booth was so long, I didn’t bother trying to sample their sandwiches. Instead, I had a lovely chat with Kevin Durkee (owner) about his restaurant, and why he doesn’t use any orange cheese (“cows don’t make orange milk!”). Cheesewerks is definitely on my list of restaurants that I need to visit this summer.
We had two really delicious soups from Soup Nutsy: Cream of Shitake Mushroom and Sherried Lobster Bisque. We managed to find seats on the second floor and were able to fully enjoy our soups away from the bedlam, but unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures. Oops.
My brother really wanted to try the General Kim, a grilled cheese with Kimchi, sweet soy pork and lotus chips, from Cut the Cheese. The poor guy waited in line for 50 minutes to get a tiny sample, only to find that he didn’t really like it.
Meanwhile, I headed off to chat with the guys from Market Garden. This was the only booth were I used my media pass to get a sample without getting in line. Sorry folks. I realized that I had only tasted 3 of the 15 sandwiches available, and decided to ask for a sample while I was chatting with them.
They served me their A-B-C-D-E-F-G sandwich which combined Asiago, Boursin, Cheddar, Edam, Fontina and Gouda cheeses with Dill and pickles. This was the second best sandwich that I ate last night. It was perfectly toasted and absolutely dripping with melted cheese.
By 8:00 I noticed that some of the vendors had run out of food. The Slab Burger booth was totally deserted, and the guys at Soup Nutsy were trying to make up for the lack of food by handing out coupons (smart).
I had been trying to get samples at the Gorilla Cheese booth all night, but every time I got there the last few sandwiches would get snapped up. I ended up cutting the line so I could take a photo of the last Lumberjack sandwich (cheddar, bacon, Granny Smith apples) before it was all gone. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t eat it. I left it for the person who had waited in line.
By 8:30pm we were totally exhausted, and fed up of waiting around. In three hours we had only eaten a grand total of 5 sandwich and 5 soup samples (most of which we shared) out of 15 sandwiches and 9 soups available. That’s pretty pathetic for an event that was touted as an all-you-can-eat festival. When we left, there wasn’t anyone waiting outside so I guess people either got fed up of waiting or everyone eventually got in.
Most of the sandwiches and soups were interesting and made with high-quality ingredients, which is what I expected for a gourmet grilled cheese event.
The vendors were all professional, and tried their damnedest to get hot food out to the 2,250 guests at the event. In fact, Cheesewerks went out of their way to offer free sandwiches at their store this weekend for people who weren’t able to taste their food at the event.
I also want to mention that the musicians who performed at the event were very talented, and deserve a lot of credit for keeping people’s spirits up.
It was obvious that there were too many people at the event, despite conflicting reports stating that the event wasn’t oversold (more on this below).
Instead of enjoying the flavours of the food, people were rushing to get from one line to the next. It was a shame too, because you could tell that many of the vendors wanted to talk to everyone about their products, but there just wasn’t time for that.
People were disappointed that they were barely able to try half of the sandwiches available, and were frustrated by wait times that varied from 20 to 60 minutes. Ultimately, no one should have to wait that long to get food unless they’re at the C.N.E.
The very worst part of this saga has to be Joylister’s PR statements.
First of all, co-owner Melissa Chien apparently gave a statement to the CBC saying that the event was oversold by 700 tickets. People were shocked as it seemed as though they sold 700 more tickets than they had planned to. Honestly, that doesn’t make any sense. First of all, Joylister was keeping track of how many tickets were sold, and the event has been sold out since Feb. 12. Secondly, the media kit that I received at the event clearly stated that there would be “over 2,250 attendees” at the event. If they didn’t mean to sell that many tickets, they wouldn’t have printed that in their media kit. More likely, Ms. Chien realized that they should have sold 700 fewer tickets when she saw how crowded the event became, but didn’t communicate that thought clearly.
Then there as a quote in the CBC article where Ms. Chien apparently said
“We’re sorry that they’re waiting but when they do come in hopefully just the scent of everything is going to put a smile to their face,”
To add to the confusion, this morning I received an email from Joylister with this statement (and a similar message was posted on their Facebook page earlier today, but now it’s gone):
“We would like to thank you for coming out to Toronto’s First Grilled Cheese Fest tonight. We understand that there was frustration and would like to clear up the issues. There have been reports that the event was oversold by 700 tickets. We would like to clarify that this is NOT true, and that the line up was never held due to capacity. What caused the excessive line ups inside were unforeseen power issues that prevented the vendors to use the full amount of grills that they needed to meet the demand of the crowd.There was an electrician on site and back up plans were in place in the event we did lose power. It did take some time to fix, which caused the start of vendor line ups. Joylister would like sincerely apologize for the logistical errors, and we can assure you we have taken everyone’s comments, criticism and advice to heart. We promise you we will apply our learnings from Toronto Grilled Cheese Fest to our future events.”
By trying to say that the CBC incorrectly quoted Ms. Chien, Joylister killed their credibility. The CBC is a respected news outlet, and people are more likely to believe them than a company that has only been around for seven months. Also, this statement sort of sounds like the vendors didn’t do a good enough job getting the food out. The apology came across half-assed and many people were unhappy with it.
Also, while I can attest to the fact that there was a power issue early on, none of the vendors mentioned it again throughout the rest of the event.
EDIT: Leslieville Cheese Market has confirmed that there was “a lack of reliable electricity” during the event.
I wonder if Joylister felt that they had given people sufficient warning about what might happen at the event. On their website they clearly state that “there will be lineups for the grilled cheese sandwiches” and they recommended that people should arrive early to avoid disappointment. However, they apparently failed to understand that people expected to be able to eat an unlimited amount of food (what else does all-you-can-eat mean?) and subsequently these paying customers felt that they had been ripped off.
Oh, and you know what else is interesting? There is a website with rental information for Roy Thomson Hall, which states that the north and south lobbies has space for only 1,500 guests. So there definitely was too many people at the event, although I suspect that Joylister planned to limit the amount of people who were in the building at any given time and that didn’t work out properly.
It’s disappointing that Joylister did not take full responsibility for the lack of organization right off the bat. I’m hoping that the company figures out what needs to be done to make this event a success next year, because I would still be willing to give them a chance. Everyone makes mistakes, but it takes guts to admit that you screwed up and wisdom to learn from it. Let’s see if Joylister can bounce back from this hot cheesy mess.
Toronto Grilled Cheese Festival Wasn’t So Gouda
I did not pay to attend this event. Joylister asked me to cover this event, but did not pay me to do so. All opinions are my own.