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Long Beach Fest Leaves Bitter Taste : Promotions: Taste of Long Beach lost money instead of helping the homeless. City officials are reviewing their permit policies to guard against future failures.


LONG BEACH — An event designed to promote local restaurants by providing inexpensive samplings of their fares has instead left a bitter taste in the mouths of most participants.

Restaurant owners say they lost money on the deal.

City officials are considering tightening up the permit procedures that allowed the summer event--called A Taste of Long Beach--to proceed.

And the event's main promoter, Jon Stevenson, fell so far in debt that he closed his business, left town to avoid his creditors and was charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly trying to pay one of them off with a bad check.

"I will never do another promotion in this town as long as I live," Stevenson said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location outside the city. "I had no intention of ripping anyone off and if everybody will give me some time, I will pay them all back."

Stevenson, 29, said that neither he nor his associates took any personal profit from the venture. In addition to sinking $30,000 into debt and being charged with a crime, he said he lost his apartment and was forced to close the doors of his promotional company, JS Enterprises.

He said he was surprised by the failure, attributing it to a variety of unforeseen problems ranging from misunderstandings with the city over the availability of a site, to traffic congestion caused by the opening of the Metro Blue Line in downtown Long Beach. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that things would turn out so poorly," the former promoter said.

They did not start out that way. Patterned after similar events that have succeeded throughout the country, A Taste of Long Beach was supposed to expose diners to the food available at an array of local restaurants during an outdoor weekend festival July 14 and 15 held downtown at Rainbow Lagoon park.

The plan was for attendees to pay a $3 admission charge, in addition to purchasing special food coupons at $1 apiece. In exchange for the coupons, representatives from 27 local restaurants, working in tents, handed out samples of their best fare, creating a sort of movable feast of small helpings for participants.

The restaurants, each of which paid $500 for the privilege of participating, were to benefit by exposure to diners who might later become regular customers. Also, they were to turn in the collected coupons at the end of the show to organizers, who would then reimburse them in cash for the food they had served.

While the main event was expected to make a profit for JS Enterprises, Stevenson said, a separate art auction held in conjunction with it on Friday night was billed as a nonprofit fund-raiser for the city's homeless population.

But problems began developing almost immediately.

During 18 months of planning, Stevenson said, he was able to persuade only six of the 700 corporations he contacted to become financial sponsors of the event. Such sponsorships were needed, he said, to provide the financial cushion necessary to cover expenses comfortably. "Until you become an established event you don't get sponsorship," Stevenson said.

Another problem was a last-minute misunderstanding with the city over available dates for the city-owned Rainbow Lagoon. Stevenson says he was told early on that the July dates were available. Jo Ann Burns, the city's director of special events, maintains that Stevenson was never told that, because the dates had already been reserved by the Ramada Renaissance Hotel for an employee picnic.

Whatever the case, the conflict was solved only weeks before the event when Stevenson and his associates paid nearly $11,000 to the Ramada in exchange for the hotel's postponement of its picnic.

And the much-touted opening of the Metro Blue Line on the same weekend, originally expected to help A Taste of Long Beach, ended up hurting, he said. Because the line was not yet open all the way to Ocean Boulevard near Rainbow Lagoon, Stevenson said, he had arranged for buses to transport people from the end of the line on Long Beach Boulevard to his event. But the light rail turnout was so great that the buses could barely move, he said. "People couldn't get down there even if they wanted to," Stevenson said. "The area was so congested that a lot of people who wanted to (attend) couldn't and just forgot about it."

The results were devastating. The art auction for the homeless barely broke even. And instead of the 10,000 guests needed to break even at the food festival, only about 4,000 paying customers showed up, Stevenson said.

Thus an event that cost nearly $140,000 to stage took in only about $110,000, ending $30,000 in the hole. By the time he had paid entertainers, security guards, city officials, electricians and his own employees, Stevenson said, there was nothing left to reimburse restaurateurs for the food they had sold.

"I had to take the monies for those food sales to pay the electric company or the generators weren't going to work the next day," Stevenson explained. "They were in our trailer at the close of business each day waiting to get paid."

The restaurateurs, understandably, took a rather dim view of this turn of events.

"It was a disappointment," said Enzo DeMuro, owner of L'Opera, an Italian restaurant downtown which, he says, is owed about $2,000. "(The money) just disappeared (and) we couldn't find him anymore."

Jim Pedone, director of sales and marketing for the Hyatt Regency Hotel, says he now ranks participation of the hotel's restaurant, The Beacon, in the summer event as one of the company's worst decisions of 1990.

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