The Mac My Cheese fest was cancelled at the last minute, leaving people confused and disappointed. Screen grab

Mac and cheese fest cancellation draws complaints and confusion

By Jordana Colomby

Macaroni and cheese fans flooded Facebook recently to express their annoyance and confusion over the 11th– hour cancellation of Ottawa’s third annual Mac My Cheese Fest, which had been scheduled to attract as many as 40,000 customers to City Hall plaza from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1.

Festival director Les Gagné apologized to customers over the festival’s Facebook page on Sept. 27, explaining that the company had failed to submit an insurance certificate on time because it was accidentally delivered to an email spam folder.

“We had pleaded with the City to make a concession but, unfortunately, we were denied and refused the issuing of the event permit,” Gagné wrote. “Our hope was that they would have penalized our organization and not our partners, vendors and the tens of 1000s of people from the area and from out of town coming to enjoy this year’s festival.”

Dan Brisebois, the City of Ottawa’s director of 2017 operations and special events, stated via email that festival organizers were sent a list of deadlines in December 2016.

“Although numerous reminders and accommodations were provided where possible, the organizer failed to meet all stated timelines for the event and a permit was subsequently denied,” he wrote.

In an interview, Gagné explained how the rapid growth of his company, Feature Media, has been hard to keep up with.

“We’re probably a year or two years ahead of our schedule in terms of our growth rate. Sometimes balancing the things that we have to do to make sure that we meet our deadlines is challenging,” Gagné said. “We’ve decided to work on it even more next year … trying our best to make sure everything is done well in advance of the deadlines.”

The Mac My Cheese Fest is a celebration of the beloved dish. Various popular vendors serve gourmet preparations of the classic meal and live music is performed throughout the weekend.

Given the huge crowds that were expected to attend the festival, vendors had been anticipating big sales.

James Doucet, operator of The Upper Deck Diner & Dairy Bar remained at his Orléans location this weekend after the festival was cancelled.
Jordana Colomby, Centretown News

James Doucet, operator of The Upper Deck Diner & Dairy Bar, said he was disappointed to hear about the cancellation of what would have been his third Mac My Cheese Fest.

Even though he was told about the cancellation nearly a week before the event, preparations had already been made, he said.

“We’ve invested about 120 man hours so far just getting ready for some of the special dishes we’re doing. And then a lot of product has been ordered,” said Doucet.

Despite the let-down and lack of compensation, Doucet said he will participate in the festival when it returns.

The success of Mac My Cheese Fest and other events organized by Gagné, such as Ribfest and Poutine Fest, have made such themed gatherings lucrative weekends for many Ottawa-based food vendors.

Gagné is the former head of the Sparks Street BIA, and is often credited with bringing food festival culture to Ottawa. He said he is proud of the events he has introduced to the city and the amount of money he has helped make for local vendors.

Doucet’s main location in Orleans only accounts for about 20 per cent of the sales he would have made during festival weekend, he said. In Orleans, he sees 700-800 customers per week, but at the festival he is likely to feed 800-1,000 mac and cheese lovers in one day, he noted.

Another vendor, who requested anonymity to protect his business, said he was banking on the Oct. 1 weekend being a big success. Both he and Doucet were also supposed to participate in Gagné’s planned Orléans Poutine Fest, which has also been cancelled.

“It’s a huge part of my weekend. It’s a lot of money, there’s bills that need to be paid,” said the vendor. “We only have 26 weekends in the whole year to make a decent pay and live a good life, and when you lose two of those weekends that are already booked, that’s potentially interrupting my livelihood.”

The two vendors were given little information as to why the Orléans festival was cancelled, but Gagné said it was the company’s decision and not a matter of paperwork.

As for the mac and cheese festival, Gagné said he knows the last-minute postponement was hard on everyone. “That’s why we pleaded to the City of Ottawa,” he said.

“I’m more concerned with the impact it has on our vendors and our partners and the tens of thousands of people who said they were coming to the event this weekend.”

The organizers of the festival took to Facebook to explain the situation and apologize.

Weeks before the event, Madison Ranta made plans to go to the festival with her sister during a scheduled visit from Thunder Bay. Ranta said the two went down to City Hall on Friday expecting a big scene, and were bummed to find nothing happening.

“We were walking up to City Hall and the lawn was bare. There was nothing … and I thought, there’s no festival, what’s going on?” she said.

Others looking forward to the festival voiced their concerns on the event’s Facebook page. Most blamed the city for not having more leniency, but some blamed Gagné, asking why the unfiled paperwork was not at the top of the company’s to-do list.

Gagné initially assured vendors and customers that the festival was only being postponed, and that he was working on a new location in a bid to host the festival by the end of October. But on Oct. 6, it was announced that the search had proven unsuccessful.

“Unfortunately, the tight timelines have left us with limited options,” the announcement stated. “As a result, our team has made the decision to move forward with the launch of the 2018 Mac My Cheese Fest. With this announcement, we promise we’ll make it up to you in a big way. We do apologize for the inconvenience this year as it was not our intent to postpone the festival but, you have our word that we will make the 2018 Mac My Cheese Fest the BEST ever and one that you won’t want to miss.”