Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Local food trucks turned away from Azalea Fest concerts causes stir

Pour Piggy’s owner Harley Bruce, left, and Irving Vasquez of Irv’s Signature Catering deliver meals to health care workers in April 2020. (Port City Daily/file)

WILMINGTON — A local food truck went viral over the weekend after its owner posted on social media he was turned away from serving at an Azalea Festival concert. Harley Bruce, of Poor Piggy’s BBQ & Catering, said the business nearly lost $5,000 in food, plus employee wages.

Live Nation and the Azalea Festival did not respond to requests for comments, but the City of Wilmington, the owner of Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park — where the concerts were held — did. City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron clarified the venue contractor DLS coordinates food at Live Nation shows and denied Poor Piggy’s was scheduled to be on site Thursday.

Bruce said most of the agreements were handled over the phone and declined to share text exchanges regarding the mix-up. He stood by his statement he was invited to attend Thursday’s Brantley Gilbert show after he was canceled on Wednesday.

“Who’s gonna believe a little barbecue guy over big business like that?” Bruce said. “It was a mess.”

In a Facebook post, Bruce explained Friday why he wasn’t on the grounds of Live Oak Bank Pavilion. The mobile eats owner said he was told there was not enough room when he showed up at the gates as scheduled with a truck full of food. By Monday, the post had more than 340 shares and almost 200 comments.

“[T]hink again next time you go on the news and boast how much you help local economy,” Bruce wrote.

The post has since been removed, something Bruce said in an interview Monday morning he was considering doing.

“I don’t want, every time I open my Facebook page, to see that sting,” he said.

The Azalea Festival and pavilion at Riverfront Park have both been touted as economic generators for Wilmington, with the festival contributing at least $50 million each year locally and the new concert venue filling nearby bars, restaurants and hotels on show nights. However, this incident of Piggy’s contributed to some escalating criticism, as in 2022 the festival relocated its street fair from along storefronts to a parking lot and spent $70,000 in taxpayer dollars on a fourth concert.

For years, Bruce has served his pork butts and brisket at the Azalea Festival concerts and the street fair. Bruce said he was told by an event employee (who he did not want to name) that his business was wanted at the concerts this year. It’s unclear if the person is a worker of Live Nation or DLS, the concession contractor, but Bruce said he typically wears a Live Nation badge.

Bruce worked many concerts at Riverfront Park and Greenfield Lake Amphitheater during the 2021 season. Last year he told Port City Daily he signed a contract for 12 events between the two venues and expected to raise his bottom line by 10% to 20% after vendor fees. While he was forewarned last year Live Nation intended to bring in its own food trailers, he was also reassured his business would still be utilized.

“We didn’t sign contracts for stuff like that [since] we worked with him for a year,” he iterated. “It’s just a food truck business.”

Bruce said he reached out to the events employee in January asking whether he would have a spot at the Azalea Festival shows. He was poised to respond to an offer to sell barbecue at the DGX Street Fair, a major component of the festival.

“But coming out of Covid and staffing issues and just risk and gamble,” Bruce said, “I was just like, this year I’m only going to do one of the two.”

When he was assured Poor Piggy’s would be a part of the lineup, he turned down the street fair invite.

Earlier last week, Bruce said he confirmed his arrival and departure times with the same person who booked him for the concerts. By Wednesday afternoon, the day of the first performance, he said he was advised not to come until the next day. Bruce admitted he wasn’t disappointed, as it was expected to be a smaller crowd for the band Girl Named Tom.

“I’m like, ‘Alright, cool. OK,’” he said. “‘Well, at least you called me before I got down there. I’ll see you tomorrow.’”

But on Thursday, a few hours before the Brantley Gilbert show, he received another phone call, explaining there was not enough room in the park for his vehicle.

“‘You can’t do this to me. I’m packed full,’” Bruce recalled saying. “And I was just like, ‘What about REO Speedwagon and Cypress Hill? It’s Thursday, Friday, Saturday — and these are the big shows. I’m coming. I’m coming down there. We’ll fit me in somewhere. It’s a small truck. I got a lot of food. I’m coming.”

When he reached the gates, he said he met with the same employee and was searching for open spots, asking if he could park here or there. But he couldn’t set up on the grass. 

“And I can see the two Live Nation trailers in the food truck spots,” he said.

It was suggested he park on the street, he said, but he knew that was illegal.

The city told Port City Daily Poor Piggy’s attempted to serve from the public right-of-way, a violation of its ordinance. Bruce acknowledged he was parked for a while to sort out the situation but clarified he never served any food.

“[W]e have ordinances in place for the safety and well-being of our city,” Dandron said.

Bruce said two more food trucks rolled up — a pizza business and an Italian shaved ice truck. Both were given the same message: to turn around. Wheelz Pizza was able to squeeze into a spot, owner Paul Parker confirmed. He said security told him they couldn’t let more trucks in because sponsored dealerships brought in cars and were taking up the space.

“I passionately told him that we had been preparing dough for a day and a half,” Parker said.

Parker said he felt bad for Poor Piggy’s and others because the prep that goes into an event is “unbelievable.” He also recognized the Live Nation staff member was apologetic.

“But he figured out a way,” Parker said. “It’s like thread the needle, but he got us through these tight little spots and got us in, and we actually parked in between Kia sponsored cars.”

According to the city, Poor Piggy’s was only scheduled to serve Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, but not Thursday. Dandron added that Bruce canceled his appearances on Friday and Saturday thereafter. Bruce maintains his contact at the venue said he would work on fitting Piggy’s in on the other nights, but he never heard back.

“I kept texting,” Bruce said. “‘Man, what are we gonna do to make it right?’”

In the end, the food didn’t go to waste. Some of it Bruce was able to freeze, even though he typically prides himself on not doing so. He said he was able to give the majority to people who needed it more, nonprofits Vigilant Hope and Walking Tall Wilmington. He also intended to give meals to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and gifted food to a friend with ABC Supply who helped him procure gas in a pinch during Hurricane Florence.

Saturday, Bruce set up Piggy’s at his commissary kitchen on College Road for the afternoon and sold food to those who turned out in support.

“A bunch of people came out, people I ain’t seen in years,” he said. “Friends, just Piggy fans, all kinds of people. We had our own little parking lot party here.”

Bruce said he does not plan to work another Live Nation event in the future.

In a statement, the City of Wilmington said it supports the area’s “thriving food industry and even adjusted the ordinances pertaining to Mobile Food Units in the new [land development code] to be more accommodating to small businesses owners.”

Update, Apr. 12: Azalea Festival Executive Director Alison Baringer explained the office was closed Monday to give organizers a break. She shared the following statement: “The Azalea Festival has been made aware of the situation below. All food & beverage at Live Oak Bank Pavilion are run by Live Nation and DLS Events. They know of the situation and are looking into the issue.”


Send story ideas, news tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com 

Shea Carver contributed to this report.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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