California Soul Food Cookout Fiasco Leads to $11 Million Lawsuit

A Bay Area festival celebrating soul food and R&B music has turned into a fiasco with a number of wild accusations, including guests fighting over non-existent front row seats, security guards walking off their posts and the event’s emcee being banned from the stage for narration of crude jokes, court documents allege.

Those are just some of the claims made by organizers of the California Soul-Food Cookout and Festival in an $11 million federal lawsuit against the Alameda County Fairgrounds, a sprawling venue in the city of Pleasanton. The fair, where the festival organizer paid to host the event on September 17-18, 2022, is said to have made a series of broken promises and abusive demands that have cost the organizer millions and damaged its reputation so badly , that he no longer hosts events, according to the suit. The case is currently winding its way through the courts, and court documents describe a series of bizarre failures, like a local version of the infamous Fyre Festival in 2017.

The problem began long before the festival gates opened, according to the lawsuit. The fair gave organizers a seating plan for the concert area that included four entire sections of the front row as well as a VIP seating area – none of which exist. Without knowing this, the organizers of the festival have sold the places indicated in the ranking.

When the event began, the lawsuit alleges, attendees poured into the amphitheater only to find that the premium front-row seats they had purchased were nowhere to be found. This set off a brutal game of musical chairs as guests saddled with non-existent seat reservations took the next closest seats. The evicted owners of these places then pushed other people out, creating a domino effect that spread to the rear.

The Alameda County Fairgrounds and its attorney in the lawsuit did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations made in the lawsuit. An 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 out security guards to help resolve the disputes, but it soon became clear that the fair had failed to bring the number of security personnel it promised in the event contract, according to the lawsuit.

In addition, court documents allege that the security officers were young and ineffective, and some even took off their uniforms and fled the scene altogether.

As other security guards rushed to help resolve seating issues, the venue’s gates were left unguarded, allowing ticketless guests to rush inside, grabbing even more of the disputed seats, organizers said. Meanwhile, no one was checking bags and at least one person entered with a firearm.

Festival staff also stepped in to cordon off the pandemonium, but that left their vending booths empty. Two juice stands, one dessert stand, a fruit stand and the merch table remained unstaffed throughout the festival, according to the lawsuit. All of that unsold merchandise resulted in a loss of more than $1.2 million, organizers estimate.

Dissatisfied customers

The empty vendor stands clearly annoyed by the attendees.

“You all need to find more vendors next time. Every vendor there was waiting at least an hour and a half or 2 hours,” one Instagram user commented on a California Soul-Food Cookout post about the event.

In the festival’s Facebook posts, other attendees complained that the venues were horrible, the musicians were hours late and the sound system was terrible.

“We all need our money back,” wrote one commenter. “I will never attend sleazy unprofessional gigs like this again.”

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

Still, the event wasn’t a complete failure. Other social media commentators celebrated the performances of singers Kevin Ross, Marcia Ambrosius and others.

Meanwhile, Max Nuval ran a pop-up stand for the Max Alchemy BBQ restaurant he owned. He faced a confusing start to the festival when there was no security at the gate where he arrived for setup, leaving him waiting for more than 30 minutes. He eventually made it to another door, though he wasn’t sure if it was his fault or the place’s.

But once he got up and started, Nuval said, things went smoothly. The pop-up restaurant was located in another part of the fair, away from the performances, so he didn’t see the chaos in the amphitheater firsthand.

“Everything was fine from our end,” Nuval told The Standard.

Too rough to do

Meanwhile, the commotion from the stands of the amphitheater began to make its way to the stage. With no security to guard the backstage area, an intoxicated man slipped in and assaulted a backup dancer, the lawsuit says.

Amidst all this, comedian and host Mario Hodge took to the stage to crack a joke. But just an hour into the festival’s scheduled start, fair officials asked that Hodge be barred from taking the microphone again, the lawsuit alleges, because his profanity and adult material made VIPs uncomfortable. Workers said the order to muzzle Hodge came straight from fair management and that if the festival didn’t comply, they wouldn’t be able to get site permits in the future.

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

Hodge declined to comment on the day’s events, citing the ongoing litigation.

This conflict amounts to racial discrimination against Hodge and the festival as a whole, organizers say. 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 lawsuit include breach of contract and infringement of free speech. Attorneys for the Fairgrounds and Soul Food Festival are scheduled to hold a settlement conference in May 2024.

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