Ronnie Polaneczky: Foody fundraisers say city fees really crummy

H ARRY GIORDANO is usually an upbeat guy. But he was struck numb by news that city fees might gut a popular fundraiser he hosts for City of Hope, the cancer-treatment center.

Giordano is a development director for the organization, and creator of "Let Them Eat Cake."

It's an annual wedding-cake-design contest in which competitors are judged by VIP cake masters, such as New York's bespectacled pastry diva, Sylvia Weinstock.

Last year's event, held on a weeknight at Center City's Loews Philadelphia Hotel, drew 1,200 attendees - mostly women who descended in chattering groups after work to sample luscious delicacies prepared by 40 chefs.

"There's something about women and cake - they just go together," said Giordano.

Trust me, I'm drooling.

"Let Them Eat Cake" raised $20,000 last year for City of Hope. Giordano expected that this year's confection, on April 15, would trump that figure.

But then he learned that unexpected fees from the city could set the night back by $11,000.

The per-food-station fees would be for temporary business licenses and special-event permits, Health Department application reviews and inspections - and then administrative costs to process the paperwork.

Across town, organizers of "Chef's Dinner For PAWS," to benefit the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, were nail-biting, too. Event planner Michele DiVeterano, who organizes the annual fundraiser, calculated that its fees would reach nearly $15,000.

"Everyone wants health inspections of the food," she said. "But these aren't outdoor events" - where safe food handling is complicated by jerry-rigged water and power lines and fluctuating temperatures. "These are indoor venues that have already been inspected."

And why the need for temporary business-privilege licenses for vendors who are donating food to charity - along with the free labor to prepare and serve it?

"It just seemed like a money grab," said DiVeterano.

And there's plenty chance to grab, given how food-focused Philly's fundraisers have gotten.

Like the annual "Great Chef's Event," hosted by the Vetri Restaurant Group, which pulls in a million dollars for Alex's Lemonade Stand and the Vetri Foundation for Children.

And "Taste of Philly," hosted by Philadelphia Weekly, which donates proceeds to charity (and whose former organizer, Amy Stoller, said that PW was hit up for $2,000 in unexpected fees after the last "Taste" event).

It's bad enough to tack exorbitant fees onto events hosted by for-profits. It's unseemly to chomp at money raised for the needy.

So, I'm glad to report that sanity has entered this food fight.

Last week, DiVeterano and a handful of other nonprofit folks met with reps from the city's Managing Director's Office, Health Department, and Licenses and Inspections to get a handle on those fees.

Turns out they've always been on the books. But they've only recently been passed onto event organizers, nonprofit or not.

Though not all organizers. And not all the time.

"We felt like we were heard," says DiVeterano, who credits Brian Abernathy, chief of staff in the Managing Director's Office, for bringing the right people together to sort out the fees.

Abernathy told me that the city wants to work with the groups to streamline the special-event process. And that the business-privilege license, which is dissolving in July, will soon be a nonissue.

"We're committed to working this out," he told me.

Even Vetri Restaurant partner Jeff Benjamin, who admits to having been really testy at the beginning of the meeting, left with a smile.

Sadly, the lovefest came late for Giordano. He has already moved "Let Them Eat Cake" to the Merion Ballroom, in Cinnaminson, N.J.

"It'll be disappointing to people who prefer a downtown location," he said, especially out-of-towners who book Center City rooms for the party. He's grateful that Philadelphia Sightseeing Tours will provide free shuttle service to Cinnaminson for those unwilling to drive over a bridge for a lemon-filled, chocolate-drizzled butter cake, no matter the cause.

"Will we be back in Philly next year?" he asked. "We'll see. To be honest, the Merion people have been so nice, I'm kind of excited to be in Jersey this time."

 


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

Twitter: @RonniePhilly