toronto sushi festival

What went wrong at the Toronto Sushi Festival?

Toronto's first two day sushi festival was a major letdown for many and a cause for concern for anyone organizing food events in this city. Events like this, as well as previous fiascos like Grilled Cheese Fest, can't help but make Torontonians think twice about attending future food festivals.

To sum up this sentiment, one need merely scroll through these comments which feature plenty of general frustration. "Buyer beware," says one commenter. "Food festivals are generally garbage and if you wanted to try sushi, go to a sushi restaurant."

On the flip side, there are event organizers who know how to run festivals that don't feature long lineups and food shortages.

"Ticketed food events (clearly) aren't everyone's cup of tea and it's really shitty that there are so many badly run ones determined to ruin things for the people genuinely interested in some fun food experiences and for the hard working people dedicated to throwing them," Spotlight City organizers offer in response to the doom and gloom brought on by the Toronto Sushi Festival.

It isn't difficult to find examples of food festivals that are worth attending. Toronto Taste, The Stop Night Market and Spotlight City's Yum Cha are three that have proved popular. So bearing in mind that not all food events are organizational disasters, let's examine what went wrong at the Toronto Sushi Festival.

The first thing to note is that despite some initial confusion and misinformation about the availability of refunds, Toronto Sushi Festival spokesperson Vincent Villanis confirms that none will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, host venue The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre is simply trying to put the whole ordeal in the rear view mirror and has taken pains to let everyone know it had no affiliation with the event, other than rental of its space. In its wake, staff feel embarrassed that the event that was initially proposed did not materialize, and was not in line with their values or mission to promote Japanese culture in Toronto.

Staff at the JCCC also told us that there's still an outstanding balance on the rental space, and that they've incurred extra costs for clean up and security because of the actions taken by the organizers.

When asked about the alleged unpaid balance, Villanis wasn't forthcoming. "Our contract with the a private transaction and I cannot comment further about that situation," he wrote in an email.

We've got some egg on our faces too, and I'm not talking the tasty tamago kind. We included this event multiple times in our event listings citing press releases that were supplied to us, as well as info publicly advertised on the official website (which has since been revised multiple times to scale back the event).

It's perhaps worth noting that no money was paid to us. We did not engage in any contract with the Toronto Sushi Festival for advertising on the site. We wrote about the event because, like many of you, we thought it sounded like a pretty good time.

Per the info provided, the event seemed promising. Initially it was billed that 20+ authentic Japanese sushi vendors would be present along with headliner Susur Lee. The change of venue from Roy Thompson Hall to the JCCC because of the overwhelming response from sushi chefs seemed to suggest there would be plenty of vendors and credible Japanese food to be had.

When we reached out to event spokesperson Villanis for comment, he acknowledged that there were "logistical mistakes made on the first day," but he claims they were "corrected...on the second day... [fixing] the lineup woes." He didn't, however, comment on my request for insight into how the event was curated or on the disparities between what was initially advertised and what was ultimately delivered.

He has since downplayed his involvement, claiming that the organizers are Hamilton-based would-be food truck, The People Panda's led by Chef Young Son - though we can confirm that Villanis was the one who booked the space and he has been our sole contact in the lead-up as well as in the aftermath of the event.

For his part, Chef Young Son has supplied the following statement via email:

"We are proud of the event we've organized. Despite not having any corporate sponsors we were able to give Toronto its first and largest sushi festival, having served over 30,000 pieces of sushi in two days to over 3,000 people."

Young also acknowledged the logistical challenges experienced on Day 1, adding that this was promptly addressed on Day 2. "This was the first sushi festival we've organized and we're very receptive to feedback. We listened to Toronto and gave our guests a totally different experience on Day 2."

We also reached out to some of the participating vendors for their impressions of the event. Penthouse Catering reported that the 2,000 pieces of sushi they were told to prepare for the first day was clearly not enough (they were sold out by 7:15pm on the Thursday) and so they rectified the situation themselves by quadrupling their stock on the Friday.

Roll This Way, called our coverage of the event "more than spot on," and went on to say they got a bad vibe as soon as they got there to set up but that it was too late to back out. They too were expecting twice as many vendors and had costed their offerings based on $1 food tickets, only to find afterwards that guests were being charged $1.50 per.

Regarding refunds, here's the official stance. "Tickets are non-refundable. However, we would be more than happy to give discounts to guests requesting for refunds on next year's event, which we envision to be bigger and better."

Whether vendors or festival goers are willing to give the Toronto Sushi Festival a second chance is yet to be seen. Our calls to The People's Panda continue to go unanswered and we're still hearing that attempts to reach the organizers by email have been unsuccessful.

Photo by Natta Summerky

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