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Pizza City Fest Was ‘A Disaster’ On Day One, Attendees Say, With Some Calling For Refunds

Long waits for food and insufficient crowd control led to some people abandoning TV personality Steve Dolinksy's food fest on Saturday — despite dropping $100 on tickets. But by Sunday, things ran smoothly, others said.

Steve Dolinsky launched the Pizza City Fest in July 2022.
Todd Rosenberg/Provided

GOOSE ISLAND — It was supposed to be a Chicagoan’s dream: two days filled with 40 of the city’s best pizzerias all convening for a weekend of cheesy fun.

But long lines and logistical issues on the festival’s first day left many with a bad taste in their mouths.

Pizza City Fest, headed by NBC 5 reporter Steve Dolinsky — also known as “The Food Guy” and formerly “The Hungry Hound” — held its second annual event Saturday and Sunday at Salt Shed 1357 N. Elston Ave. Last year’s event was at the Union Plumbers Hall in West Loop.

While it was a venue upgrade from its inaugural edition, frustrated attendees said it wasn’t worth the dough. Many said they waited in line for hours both inside and outside the venue, and never got the promised amount of pizza or drinks they’d paid for.

Numerous people took to Instagram, Facebook and Reddit to blast the disorganization and demand refunds.

“It was a disaster,” said Dave Scheidt, a Logan Square neighbor who attended on Saturday. “We were waiting in line for like an hour in a single file line, then out of nowhere it splits into, like, four lines. So just getting in the door was a struggle [because] no one really knew what to do.”

Salt Shed representatives said the festival got off to bad start because of an equipment failure, but things smoothed out after that.

“Our Saturday started with a rented generator malfunction which temporarily took down a number of the event’s cooking ovens, which led to a late entry for guests and an influx of traffic around the pizzerias,” Salt Shed representatives said in a statement. “Once the power was back up and running, the festival quickly got back on course. We’re extremely proud of the staff who had to adapt to a difficult situation — the quick fixes and all-hands-on-deck approach helped make the rest of the weekend an incredible celebration of Chicago’s finest pizzerias.”

In a statement after this story published, Dolinsky said the generator problems affected six pizza ovens. He and his team were “disappointed” with how the event started, he said.

“On behalf of the entire team who worked on this year’s Pizza City Fest event at The Salt Shed, I want to apologize for the experience our guests had on Saturday,” Dolinsky said in a statement. ” … We proudly showcased the city’s best pizzerias and had engaging, informative seminars, fantastic live music, snacks and sweets throughout the weekend, but in the end, Day 1 didn’t live up to expectations.

“We are doing everything in our power to make things right with affected guests and we are already focused and working on improving all processes moving forward.”

Tickets promised attendees between 10-14 slices from 20 vendors each day and ranged from $65 for kids, $100 for general admission and $200 for VIP. Adult tickets also included unlimited pop, water, beer, wine and cocktails, unlimited sides and desserts, and access to pizza-themed merch, panels, seminars, demos and live entertainment.

VIP ticketholders were also allowed into the venue an hour early, and got access to a private, shaded seating area as well as a rooftop bar.

But Calumet City resident Connie Peulecke said logistical problems were evident right as she and her two friends arrived Saturday afternoon.

“We arrived at 1 p.m. when the doors opened for [general admission], and we probably waited close to an hour to get in,” Peulecke told Block Club. “The line was wrapped around the building.”

Once the group got through the line, Peulecke said her group struggled to navigate the huge crowd, figure out where lines started and ended, and actually get any pizza. 

Although lines for drinks took only about 15 minutes, it was a challenge to reach pizza vendors, leaving many with fewer than the 10 minimum pieces stated in the ticket, Peulecke said. 

“You could barely walk through the crowd,” she said. “The line for every vendor and drinks [was] insanely long. It was a battle to even walk through and see what pizza places were there.”

Eventually, she and her friends found an area to sit down in, during which time a worker from Nancy’s Pizza brought the group some slices to share.

By 3:30-4 p.m., Peulecke and her friends were fed up enough to bail. 

“We decided it wasn’t worth it to stand in line for another 30 minutes to get a small slice of pizza,” she said. “And we definitely wouldn’t have been able to get the 10 slices per person that was offered, so we made the decision to leave.”

Peulecke attended the festival last year, too, and was disappointed with the experience, but she had hoped that by now “they had figured out the kinks,” she said. With some changes this year, like a limit on pizza slices and more ovens, Peulecke said she had “high hopes” for a better event. 

“After two years of being highly disappointed and [a] lack of organization [on] their end, I would not give [Dolinsky] and his organization another dime,” she said.

Peulecke later said Dolinsky contacted her to offer a refund.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Salt Shed in Goose Island.

Power Outage Creates ‘Pent-Up Pizza Demand’

The busted generator caused a domino-like effect for vendors, customers and festival staff, according to someone who worked the event and asked to remain anonymous.

“It came down to kind of like one thing, which was that one of the generators they had rented failed, and it wasn’t operational,” for about the first hour, they said. 

The outage didn’t affect all the vendors, but many of those whose power went out were centrally located. Restaurants on either side of the outage that remained at full power then bore the brunt of the crowds, which created long lines. As a result, some vendors sold out of pizza early, the worker said.

“The people around the edges who did have power were getting hit extra hard,” they said. “All this pent-up pizza demand is going onto them.”

Organizers had electricians on site working on the problem, “[and] Steve was on the mic telling people about it, but that created some chaos,” the worker said.

To help quell the frustrated crowds, event staff stopped punching ticketholders’ pizza cards and extended the hours of the festival until 6 p.m. — which was a surprise to vendors, the worker said.

“The thing that set the tone was that generator thing on day one, and it’s really hard to come back from something like that,” the worker said.

There were a few other small issues, like insufficient refrigeration space, which required some vendors to throw out ingredients during an inspection from the health department, the worker said. 

“I don’t think it crippled anyone, but, it’s annoying,” they said.

Ultimately, the worker chalked Saturday’s events up to “growing pains” that arose from expanding the festival. By the later afternoon Saturday, the atmosphere calmed and there were “lots of smiling faces in the last two hours.” On Sunday, “the vibes were good,” the worker said.

“They probably maybe had a worst-case scenario kind of day, but it’s hard to scale things up,” they said. “…But, you know, I think a lot of people are pretty rightfully upset about waiting and everything else.”

Credit: Pizza City Fest

Scheidt, of Logan Square, went with a friend hoping to sample goods from the impressive lineup of restaurants.

Instead, he’s requested a refund.

The Salt Shed was a fun location for a festival, but the event’s layout was the “worst” part, Scheidt said. Lines to nowhere, walls of people not moving, a lack of clear signage, and throngs of upset, unfriendly people made for a maddening ordeal, he said. 

“I felt bad for the actual staff, but it was just so poorly organized,” he said. “No crowd control or guiding people or making sure the lines were clear and kept moving.”

One attendee who claimed to have bought two VIP tickets for $400 is set to get their money back, according to a post on the Pizza City Fest’s Facebook page.

“We are giving you a full refund, and we made all corrections necessary to have had a perfect event today (Sunday),” the festival replied to the comment. “We are sorry about the experience you had and worked all night to improve it for guests today.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Dark clouds loom above the Chicago skyline as seen from above Goose Island on Aug. 3, 2022.

Things Improved On Sunday, Attendee Says

Alana Martin, a Grand Crossing resident who attended both days of the festival, said she also was irritated at how things were organized Saturday. 

Martin arrived solo around 2 p.m. Saturday and immediately noticed long lines at the entrance, she said. Because of the ticket’s price, she decided to commit but said she didn’t believe she waited as long as others to enter. 

But once inside, “there was no room to breathe or move or even exist,” she told Block Club.

“You could not tell what line you were in, so you could wait in one line, think you’re trying to get some pizzeria that’s right in front of you, but it turns out it’s this line for the other side of that pizzeria,” she said. “I was intent on getting my pizza, so I made it work.”

Around 3:30-4 p.m. — around the time Peulecke and her group left — people around Martin began to give up and leave, as well, and said they wanted refunds, she said. 

Once the crowd began to thin, it became easier to move around and enjoy the festivities, she said.

By Sunday, many of the issues had been addressed, making for an entirely different experience, Martin said.

On Sunday, she arrived earlier in the day — this time with a VIP ticket and a friend in tow — and found that vendors had well-defined lines with entrances and exits. While it was still a full event, the crowds weren’t as overwhelming as Saturday and it was much easier to get pizza, she said.

“It just seemed like Saturday was a dry run and Sunday was the real show,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of people upset, but I feel like the Sunday crowd would be like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Day 2 “was just a…better energy,” with less frustration, she added.

Though it was a mixed experience, Martin said that overall it was mostly positive and that she was able to get all her pizza. Next year, she would be open to going again — especially if a VIP experience came with a line pass. 

Looking back, though she agrees that there was disorganization when the festival opened on Saturday, she said she would also encourage people to adjust their expectations and remain patient.

“I think people thought that they would just get their pizza, get in line, and go…but you kind of have to stick around,” Martin said. “So come Sunday, I knew that I should enjoy and…not have to race to get all of my pizza.” 

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