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Update 4/25: The morning after this story published organizer NOVA Food Fest Productions LLC announced on social media that it will be refunding Leesburg Mac & Cheese Meltdown Festival ticket holders who cannot attend a similar festival on Aug. 4 in Frederick, Maryland. “Once the August 4th event is concluded and tickets are deactivated by the website, we will issue the requested refunds on Aug. 5,” it reads. The organizer also stipulates that refund requests must be made through Eventbrite or Paypal. Some members of the “NOVA Mac & Cheese Meltdown Victims” Facebook group are disappointed the refunds won’t be issued for a couple of months. 

Leesburg resident Jessie Pickard bought four tickets to this Saturday’s NOVA Mac & Cheese Meltdown Festival as Christmas presents. “I thought, my god, what a cool idea,” she says. “My friends live a couple states away. They’re coming into town Friday for the festival.” But when she woke up this morning and checked her email, she learned the festival wouldn’t go on as planned.

In the email sent to ticket-holders, obtained by City Paper, the organizer, NOVA Food Fest Productions LLC Management, said there would be no refunds and blamed the Loudoun County Health Department for the failure of the event. 

“We regret to inform you that the NOVA Mac & Cheese Meltdown/Festival must be re-scheduled due to unnecessary issues with the Loudoun County Health Department,” it reads. “We are updating the location and date of the event to August 4, 2019, 11:30 AM until 4:30 PM (Frederick Fairgrounds, Frederick Maryland). The new location with more space is only 28.9 miles from the initial event venue (Loudoun County Fairgrounds).”

NOVA Food Fest Productions LLC Management, headed by Michelle Hale (formerly Michelle Godfrey), also offered three other opportunities for ticket-holders to exchange their tickets: The DMV Chicken Wing & Craft Beer Festival on June 29 in Clarksburg, Maryland; the MoCo Community Mac & Cheese Festival on Sept. 7 in Clarksburg, Maryland; and the MoCo Sandwich Festival on Oct. 5 in Gaithersburg.

“I don’t think it’s an equivalent offering,” says Jocelyn Bothe, who bought four VIP tickets for $155 back in February. “I’m not available on Aug. 4 or the other dates they proposed. It’s in a different state. Saying Frederick is equivalent to Leesburg is factually incorrect. Saying from the beginning that refunds will be denied feels very dishonest.” 

So far, Bothe has written to the Better Business Bureau, contacted the organizer of the event through the ticketing website Eventbrite, and requested a refund through Eventbrite. Next, Bothe will try getting a refund through her credit card company. She has also created an online support group by the name of “NOVA Mac & Cheese Meltdown Victims.”

“It’s really disappointing,” Pickard adds. “It was such a unique-sounding event. The whole thing dedicated to mac and cheese! Who wouldn’t want that? It was so close to us we could practically walk there. Changing it over to Maryland isn’t a thing.” She has requested a refund through both Eventbrite and her credit card company.

Eventbrite’s website says event organizers set their own refund policies and suggests ticket-holders “check the event listing to see if the event organizer set a refund policy.” Pickard doesn’t recall seeing one and wonders where that leaves her. The Eventbrite website also says, “If you haven’t heard back from your organizer within one week, you can contact us. While refunds are managed solely by your event organizer, we’ll do our best to connect you with them to follow up on your request.”

After publication, Eventbrite submitted the following statement in response to City Paper’s request for comment: 

We ticket millions of events each year and strive to ensure all parties are treated fairly when something doesn’t go as planned. Organizers manage all aspects of their event including setting the refund policy, so we recommend that ticket buyers contact them directly with their refund requests in order to reach the fastest resolution. We recognize there are unique circumstances with the rescheduling of this event and have been in communication with the organizer to do what we can to help reach a fair outcome for attendees.

The email ticket-holders received today concludes with, “We are disappointed in the way the Loudoun County Health Department has handled this event and we will not continue working with them in the future.” 

“We happened to be on vacation last week and we returned to a slew of emails from our food vendors that were unhappy and didn’t even want to attend the event on Saturday because the dealings with the health department,” Hale explains. “They turned down several of other food vendors with no valid reason and only approved two food vendors. That’s where we’re at. This would have been my 55th event. The rest we’ve held in Frederick and Montgomery counties with no problem … We felt a million percent they were against us.” 

Loudoun County Health Department Director Dr. David Goodfriend provided the following statement to City Paper:

“The Health Department was made aware this week that the organizers have chosen not to hold their Mac & Cheese event this weekend in Loudoun County. We have been working with NOVA Food Fest for some time on this event.  The challenge has been that a number of their vendors are not currently permitted to serve food in Virginia and there was not sufficient time left for them to obtain these food permits prior to the April 27 event once some of the food vendors began the application process this past week.”

He also sent City Paper the instructions packet he sent to NOVA Food Fest Productions LLC Management that details the lead times required “to ensure a safe event for patrons.” “While the information spells out the required minimum 10-day lead time for permitting of vendors, even though that minimum was not met, our staff were willing to work to permit this event’s vendors if sufficient information was provided to safely permit them,” Goodfriend continued. After publication, Hale contacted City Paper to respond to Goodfriend’s statement to say that “90 percent of the food vendors are Virginia-based.” 

As the afternoon went on, two Facebook threads where would-be attendees were voicing their frustrations and refund strategies became no longer available. First the comment threads vanished, then the NOVA Food Fest Productions LLC page and the event page for the Aug. 4 event disappeared. Commenters there were hoping that if enough of them requested refunds through Eventbrite, they could make progress. City Paper took screenshots earlier in the day.

Hale says she did not delete or turn off the comments on the Facebook pages related to the event. “All of our pages are being updated right now,” she says. “Everything is frozen for us to update for the new event. We have to fix it, update it, and let everybody know and make sure everything matches with the dates and times and locations.”

She also stands by her decision not to offer refunds and pins some of the blame on the mac and cheese vendors.

“Because the event has been rescheduled, everything moves over to the new event,” Hale says. “Their tickets are moved over because we’ve reserved their vendors ahead of time. [The vendors] are responsible for providing what that ticket states. They’re holding the spot with the vendor to enjoy the tasting. That’s not us.” 

Finally, she says, “Every single food vendor that was set to be there on April 27 has agreed to move over [to the new date]. It’s going to be more pleasant.” 

Semantics matter. Can you truly call it a rescheduled event? Or, was it cancelled?

“I hope they do the right thing,” Pickard says. “If people can’t make the next event, they should get a refund.”

Photo by Flickr user Gail

This story has been updated to include a new comment from Hale and a statement from Eventbrite.