Halifax Mac and Cheese Festival leaves sour taste for attendees

Hungry pasta lovers say they were cheesed by overcrowding, high prices and disorganization at a mac and cheese festival in Halifax last weekend.

The Mac and Cheese Festival touts itself on its website as North America's largest food festival celebrating mac and cheese.

The experience was a big disappointment for Kandy Clarke and her sister, who drove to Halifax from P.E.I. on Saturday to visit their brother and attend the festival.

"We're big mac and cheese fans," she said with a laugh.

Entrance to the festival was free, but attendees needed to purchase tickets to buy food. Clarke and her sister each bought $20 worth of tickets after a 20-minute wait in line.

Once they got into the festival, they soon realized they would have to wait some more. There were only a handful of vendors and long lines of people snaking around the space.

'It was just chaos'

Eight vendors were advertised ahead of time, but Clarke said she only saw six — and one of them had run out of food by the time they arrived early Saturday evening.

She said there were so many people that it was impossible to see what each vendor was offering, and which line led where.

"It was just chaos. It was just people wall-to-wall," said Clarke, who's from Summerside.

The event took place at Sackville Landing on the Halifax waterfront. Clarke estimated the festival space to be about 15 by 30 metres.

The pair waited for an hour in one of the lines — during which the line only moved a couple of feet, she said — before they gave up and left to go find food elsewhere.

On their way out, Clarke was surprised to see there was still a line of people waiting to get into the festival.

"There has to be a capacity at some point," she said.

Submitted by J.D. Fisher

She said she asked festival staff if she could get a refund for the $40 worth of unused tickets, but she was told the tickets were non-refundable.

Staff suggested she try to sell them to people still standing in line instead. Clarke said she was only able to sell $10 worth.

'Pitiful' servings

J.D. Fisher, who also attended the festival on Saturday, said the event was poorly organized, the food overpriced and the ticket system confusing.

The tickets were sold in increments of $10. Eight tickets cost $10 — equalling $1.25 per ticket — but Fisher said it was unclear how many tickets the different food offerings required.

He ended up just buying eight tickets, figuring he could go back and get more if he needed them.

While he didn't have to wait too long for his food, he said he spent all eight tickets on a sample-size bowl of noodles.

"The amount of mac and cheese I get for $10 is pitiful, it's just such a small amount," he said. "It's like a handful of mac and cheese."

At the booth he went to, he said a tall boy of beer cost nine tickets, and a bottle of water cost three tickets — $11.25 and $3.75, respectively.

Robert Short/CBC

Fisher also said there was too many people and too few vendors, and that the kiosks kept running out of food.

The event has drawn a slew of negative feedback on social media, with one Facebook user describing it as the "2019 Halifax Line-up Festival."

Multiple people who commented on the event's Facebook page said they were told in advance that there would be vegan and gluten-free options, but they weren't available when they showed up.

Others on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit complained of long lines, pricey food and general disorganization.

Administrators of the Facebook page have disabled commenting on multiple posts.

Organizers surprised by turnout

Part of the proceeds from the festival will be donated to Feed Nova Scotia, though the non-profit organization said on Monday that it didn't know how much it will get yet.

Philip Suos, the founder and managing director of the Mac and Cheese Festival, said in an email that organizers were anticipating about 7,500 people to attend the event over three days, but over 45,000 ended up going — six times more than expected.

This surplus "led to massive line ups and vendor[s] selling out several times throughout the day," he said.

He said more vendors were scheduled, but some weren't able to make it because they were still dealing with issues from Hurricane Dorian last weekend.

Suos also said organizers have spoken to "hundreds of customers who had a great time and thanked us for keeping it free admission."

"We understand there are hiccups when it comes to launching in a new city but now that we have actual hard numbers of attendance, demographics etc., we'll all be better prepared the next time around," he said.

He said that after seeing how much demand there was for the festival in Halifax, he hopes to bring the "full version" of the festival to Halifax in a much bigger venue next year.

Suos did not respond to CBC News' request for an interview, nor did he answer follow-up questions about the number of vendors that took part and if he has gotten any complaints from customers.

'Mixed feedback,' says Develop Nova Scotia

In an email, Develop Nova Scotia, which partnered with the Mac and Cheese Festival for the event, said it received "mixed feedback" for the weekend.

"Hosting a variety of events, which includes free, family-friendly events and trying new things, is important, and contributes to the draw of the Halifax waterfront," said spokesperson Kelly Rose.

"As with all of our events and activities, we encourage feedback from the public. We also evaluate events with our partners throughout the year, and as we plan ahead for the next season."