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The now-defunct Chow Chow organization failed to pay $20,000 in honoraria to local vendors

A scene from Chow Chow's opening party in 2023 that celebrated the Appalachian barbecue tradition.
Courtesy of Stephan Pruitt Photography
A scene from Chow Chow's opening party in 2023 that celebrated the Appalachian barbecue tradition.

When Chow Chow culinary festival announced it would permanently shut down, 45 local vendors from the 2023 festival were left in the lurch.

The majority of vendors were promised $500 honoraria, totaling more than $20,000 in nonpayment, according to Charlotte Stack, a Chow Chow board member. A few vendors were promised more than $500, Stack said.

Vendors were notified via an email on Feb. 8 that they would not receive payment. BPR obtained a copy of the email.

“We are in no way financially capable of cutting checks to finalize your payment,” the email said. “Our immediate action will be reaching out to you directly to provide you with an official Tax Donation Letter in the amount still owed as ‘in-kind services and goods’ – this way you have some opportunity to re-coupe what you can as a tax write-off for the 2023 tax season. It is not ideal, but we have exhausted every option we have.”

The email also told vendors the organization would “continue to hold space for any emotions you may feel or questions you may have after hearing this news.”

The news came three months after another email from the organization addressing the delays. The email, sent of Nov. 3 by Board President Rhea Lidowski, said Chow Chow hoped to pay the remaining honoraria through a matching grant fundraising challenge.

"What was intended to raise money for increasing our operational capacity will now go fully towards making sure everyone receives promised honorariums as soon as possible," she wrote.

"I hesitate to give any deadlines to when the last person will receive their check but we have decreased our operational costs to bare minimums - even our [executive director] is waiving their salary - just to guarantee that every dollar that comes in goes directly to paying each and everyone of you."

Jill Wasilewski, owner of the restaurant Ivory Road, participated in Chow Chow every year since it launched in 2019. At last year’s festival, she said she spent around $400 and “a lot of time” preparing a pork belly dish for festival goers.

As one of the vendors who will not receive payment, Wasilewski described the situation as “a little disheartening, to say the least.”

“I know $500 doesn't sound like a make or break and it's not going to be, but it was quite a lot of food,” she said. “I am just one single owner. There's no partners. There's no investors, just literally just me and my bank account.”

While Wasilewski said she loved participating in Chow Chow, the nonpayment does “leave a sour taste,” she said.

“I'm curious, who is responsible for it? Because I just don't understand how you run a festival for the fourth year in a row and suddenly you're tens of thousands of dollars off,” she said. “I just don't understand that. It's not their first year, so I feel like something happened that's very sketchy.”

The "Makers Market" booth at the 2023 Chow Chow festival.
Courtesy of Stephan Pruitt Photography
The "Makers Market" booth at the 2023 Chow Chow festival.

Beyond the 45 unpaid stipends, Stack wrote in an email that “to the best of our knowledge,” all other vendors have been paid.

“The event management company we contracted with to execute the event managed the majority of our vendor relations directly,” she said. “We are reliant on the information provided by that team, but it is our understanding that all vendors have been paid. Nobody has come to us directly to report non-payment from the event that has remained unpaid,” she wrote.

Shay Brown, the event producer of Chow Chow for its final three years, declined to comment on the festival’s financial problems.

“I left Chow Chow – Food + Culture Festival in September of 2023 and had no involvement in the conversations about continuing the festival or decision to discontinue it,” she wrote to BPR in an emailed statement.

Based on the festival’s most recent tax records from 2022, the festival had $476,409 in revenue and $503,627 in expenses, for a total loss of $27,218.

Over its four years of operation, the festival received $210,000 in investments from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the authority’s CEO and President Vic Isley confirmed.

“As a founding sponsor of the Chow Chow Food + Culture Festival and a continued supporting member of Asheville and Buncombe County’s culinary scene through our Foodtopia campaign, we were sad to learn along with the rest of our community that 2023 would be the final year for the festival’s operation,” Isley wrote in a statement.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.