Tempers flare between KAABOO and the Del Mar Fairgrounds


With aspersions and accusations being cast in every direction, the simmering dispute over concessions at the KAABOO festival boiled over this week as state appointees who oversee the Del Mar Fairgrounds took KAABOO to task, with one board member declaring that he’d prefer to see KAABOO’s contract canceled altogether.

At issue is KAABOO’s use last year of a third-party concessionaire after complaints over the performance of Premier Food Services, which has provided the fairgrounds with bartenders, waiters and hospitality workers for more than 30 years.

KAABOO’s frustration with Premier dates back to the inaugural 2015 festival, when Premier split the contract with another concessionaire. In 2016, Premier handled concessions on its own. KAABOO has described Premier’s performance both years as disorganized and inefficient. For the 2017 festival, Premier accepted a $150,000 buy-out and KAABOO awarded the contract to Spectrum Staffing Services, which handles several of the largest music festivals in the nation — including Governor’s Ball in New York, Life is Beautiful in Las Vegas and Bonnaroo in Tennessee — as well as events for the PGA tour, the NFL and Cirque de Soleil.

“The decision to use Spectrum was simple,” said Nathan Prenger, KAABOO’s senior vice president of operations. “… In 2017, lines were shorter and the guest experience was unparalleled.”

After last year’s festival, KAABOO asked the 22nd District Agricultural Association — which runs the state-owned fairgrounds — to ratify its contract with Spectrum for 2018 and 2019. Fairgrounds CEO and General Manager Tim Fennell denied the request so that the DAA board could make the decision.

The board tabled a decision at its January meeting. More than two hours of tense, sometimes vitriolic discussion at the DAA’s Feb. 13 meeting resulted in the board tabling the decision again — but not before several board members said they have lost trust in KAABOO. Board member David Watson issued the harshest rebuke, citing numerous contract violations over KAABOO’s three years — the 2016 riot, an assault last year on a Premier bartender and non-compliance with the fairgrounds’ noise ordinance all three years.

“I want to make this crystal clear: in my opinion, KAABOO has no credibility whatsoever,” Watson said. “They have lied to this board repeatedly about key aspects of what’s going on, and as far as I’m concerned, I think we ought to consider terminating the contract and finding someone else.”

Over the past several months, Premier workers have complained of poor oversight, questionable serving practices and an assault on a Premier bartender by a volunteer. Premier workers also object on the grounds that the Spectrum contract jeopardizes their ability to accrue enough work days to meet their union’s requirements for health care coverage. Several warned the DAA board that allowing KAABOO to use Spectrum sets a dangerous precedent.

“This opens up Pandora’s box to events further down the road,” said Eric East, a Premier bartender for 20 years.

KAABOO officials countered that the complaints have only come from a small handful of the 200 Premier employees Spectrum hired last year.

“I feel as though I’m at a family get-together and the two sides can’t get along and I’m in the middle,” said board member Richard Valdez. “Somehow I’m supposed to be an arbiter of what the truth is.”

However, Valdez said he could support a Spectrum extension — a sentiment echoed by board president Steve Shewmaker and Russ Penniman, last year’s board president.

“I could not believe I could not get a drink in 2016, that I could not get food in 2016,” Shewmaker said. “I just thought that was par for the course for an event like this. Then I had a very positive experience in 2017; you walked to the bar and you got a drink. … I, for one, don’t want to get involved in telling KAABOO who they have to hire.”

Amid the rancor, a way forward emerged. The board tabled its decision in order to see if KAABOO chooses Premier for the festival’s “back-of-house” catering contract — serving artists, corporate guests, VIPs and festival staff. That decision could come in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, board member Frederick Schenk urged KAABOO to have a dialogue with Premier to mend the relationship.

“Let’s come back and have everything before us so that … we’re looking at the big picture,” he said. “Because clearly there’s division here, and there’s division because folks at KAABOO, you created this division. Let’s try to find some way to address all of these concerns.”

After the meeting, a KAABOO spokesman said the company felt “shocked and taken aback” by the board’s grievances, and will be looking into whether some of the statements amount to slander.

“To hear these kinds of accusations of ‘You’re lying, you’re in breach of contract,’ — We’re going to be pursuing all options. To have these members of the board saying these kinds of deeply personal claims is very concerning,” said KAABOO spokesman Joshua Goodman. “We feel really taken aback by some of what happened today, and hopefully we get to a place by next month’s meeting where the board will give us the freedom to provide guests with a great experience.”