Food

Will This Flash-Mob Picnic Party Become the Fyre Festival of Summer?

The Grand White has promised events in eight US cities for nearly three years—and ticket holders want their money back.

Photograph via Getty Images

In fall 2019, Jamie Rogers purchased tickets to the Grand White—an event where patrons don all white and gather at a secret outdoor location for a lavish picnic-style party. A federal contractor in DC, Rogers describes herself as “the event coordinator” for her friend group, and was excited to catch the South African event series on its first-ever US tour. Stops for the spring/summer “lifestyle flash-mob picnic” included Washington and eight other cities, including New York, Chicago, and Houston. Videos and photos on Facebook for the Grand White USA—where Rogers first spotted the event—show DJ dance parties, a white dove ceremony, and attractive partygoers posing in fashion contests. Rogers splurged on $287-worth of premium, tented seats for her four-person group, and eagerly awaited the May 2020 fete. 

“It looked very fun, very put together, the marketing was excellent,” Rogers says. 

No surprise, the 2020 tour was canceled due to Covid. But fast forward nearly three years, and Rogers—along with ticket holders in cities around the country—are still chasing the Grand White whale, searching for either the promised picnics or a refund.

As US cities loosened their Covid regulations, and large events—particularly outdoor fêtes—resumed in 2021, the Grand White US continued to postpone its gatherings with a one-size-fits-all message:

“COVID-19 Notice: The event is postponed until event bans are lifted by the state government. The rescheduled event date is to be confirmed in future. We cannot confirm the date due to constant changes emanating from the pandemic.”

The same pattern is emerging this year—with the same Covid excuse—as events are being pushed to 2023 without warning or direct notification to the ticket holders Washingtonian spoke with, along with numerous accounts on Facebook and other social media sites. Parties that were originally rescheduled for this spring in Atlanta (May 21, 2022) and Philadelphia (May 28, 2022) have now been postponed a third time. Facebook post permissions on the individual Grand White city pages—filled with hundreds of angry comments and questions—have been turned off. The phone numbers listed for the organizers are no longer active. Multiple attempts— by ticket holders we spoke to and Washingtonian—to reach the Grand White via phone, email, and social media have gone unanswered. 

“I’m wondering now if it’s a scam,” says Anthony Jones, a Philadelphia resident who works in law enforcement. Jones bought two tickets for Philly’s 2020 party. He only found out that this year’s gathering was postponed when he saw the new 2023 date. “I’ve been trying to make correspondence about this year’s [event], and so far, there’s no feedback, no nothing.”

 

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In Georgia, ticket holders flooded the Grand White Atlanta Facebook page with comments when the event was postponed without warning in May. One of those commenters, Patti Lewis, tells Washingtonian that she’s issued a fraud alert to Facebook, but hasn’t heard back. Lewis says she spent around $400 on the Grand White between the tickets ($238), theme clothing, food, and alcohol. She says she was never notified that the party was cancelled. She noticed a New Year’s Eve-style countdown clock on the Grand White Atlanta’s website register zero—happy event day?—and set a new date for the event: May 20, 2023.

“I’m hoping they reach out to me,” says Lewis, an Atlanta resident. “I would love to get a refund. But if not, at least shut them down at this point—how much money have they got from people?”

At the time of this story’s publication, individuals can still purchase passes in select cities like Atlanta, Houston, and DC for 2023 via online ticketing platform NuTickets. Premium seats near an undetermined stage can go for $110 a pop, while a full table is over $720. 

Part of the Grand White’s allure is its mystery; the party planners are supposed reveal the “secret” location the morning of the event. But so far, nothing has materialized. 

“They said you’d get an email at 6 AM in the morning saying where [it was], and they didn’t do anything of the sort” says Tenesha Goode, a New Jersey resident who purchased $280 in tickets for the Philadelphia event. “We feel like it’s a scam.”

Le Diner en Blanc in DC, 2016. Photograph by Evy Mages

If the premise for the Grand White feels familiar—it is. Le Diner en Blanc, the grande dame of fancy flash mob dining, started in Paris in 1998 and spread to 120 cities worldwide. A typical gathering involves thousands of revelers descending on an “iconic” mystery location—near the Eiffel Tower, atop the “Rocky steps”—all dressed in their finest whites. Per the rules, guests tote tables, chairs, elaborate decorations, a “gourmet meal for two,” and fine wines or Champagne (no beer, merci). Last year in DC, where the event has occurred since 2012, over 6,000 participants took over Pennsylvania Avenue with the Capitol floating cloud-like above.  

No surprise for party concept whose waitlist stretches into the thousands, Le Diner en Blanc has inspired a lot of knockoffs—some more literal than others. There are “white-out” beach bashes, an invite-only “Diner en Noir” series, and even “Diner en Blancs” that are not, in fact, Le Diner. And then there’s the Grand White, an entity that’s increasingly confused with the long-running event series. 

“We typically do not comment on the spin-offs or events that emulate Diner en Blanc,” says Linda Davis, one of the organizing partners for Diners en Blanc in DC, New York, Boston, and Charleston. But Davis agreed to speak with Washingtonian about the Grand White due to mounting confusion between the two organizations. “This is not the first year that the Grand White party has set a date, announced their event, and canceled,” Davis says. “There is some confusion, and each year we’ve had their guests reach out to us—often angry, demanding refunds. We, of course, respond to each one and say we’re not them. We have a long, 32-year history of announcing and hosting incredible events. So it’s unfortunate that this group has tagged on to what we see as a beautiful city event and spoiled it for some people.”

Davis says Le Diner en Blanc sent a Cease and Desist letter to the Grand White years ago. According to Davis, the Grand White “did a cut and paste” of photos and language from Diner en Blanc events, and used them in their promotional materials. “It’s not the first spinoff that’s used our photographs or even the concept,” says Davis. “But there’s only one Diner en Blanc.”

When the Grand White recently canceled in Philly “until event bans are lifted by the state government,” Davis was incredulous. “I just got a laugh out of that because that’s obviously not the case.” In 2021, Le Diner en Blanc Philadelphia hosted an outdoor gathering that was capped at 50 percent—only 3,000 people—and plans to host another in August.

“The planning for our event is many many months,” says Davis. “To unravel it would be quite an undertaking. You have lighting, sound, vendors—you partner with companies that have a big commitment in terms of their equipment and man hours.”

Washingtonian contacted four major entities that are often involved in planning, issuing permitting, and/or hosting large public outdoor gatherings in the District: the Mayor’s office; the National Park Service, which issues permits for the National Mall and federal parks; Events DC, whose venues include RFK Fairgrounds; and I.M.P., whose venues include Merriweather Post Pavilion and The Anthem. All say they’re unfamiliar with the Grand White DC.

“Is this Diner en Blanc?” asked one employee in the mayor’s office.

Le Diner has been criticized for being a tad pretentious—the invite-only, no-beige, no-beer mindset ruffles some plumage. But compared to the Grand White, the point of entry—around $45 and then BYO everything—is low. Ticket prices for the Grand White, which start around $65 per person in DC, are built around tables that seat between six and 24 guests, according to seating charts on the DC site. 

Tiffany Thorne, who purchased over $165 in tickets and parking passes for the now thrice-postponed Atlanta event, says she encouraged friends and others on Facebook to buy tickets to fill out a section. 

“My husband and I own a small business so we were hoping to network,” says Thorne, who says she was never notified that the event was rescheduled. “ I was convincing people to buy that table out so we can sit together.”

Thorne, like many others, has requested a refund—both directly via email and on the Grand White Facebook page. Complaints filed to the Better Business Bureau are filled with similar pleas, including one individual who alleges his group bought $1100 worth of tickets. Customers here and elsewhere point to a confusing refund policy on the Grand White US’s website, which states: 

“Unfortunately, in some circumstances beyond our control (heavy rains, natural disaster, floods, change of legislation) we may have no choice but to postpone or cancel the event. Your ticket is covered with a ticket insurance, so if there’s a case of postponement or cancellation, you’ll receive a full ticket refund through our insurer Event Protect with a ‘no questions asked” policy.’ And a few sentences later: “Please note: no refunds are available.” 

Washingtonian has reached out to Event Protect for clarification, but has received no reply. Two years ago, when events were rightfully being cancelled due to Covid, the Grand White USA Facebook would sometimes reply to impatient ticket holders with the following explanation:

“We rely solely on ticket sales, and part of the ticket income has been used to pay staff salaries, acts, rent, venues, advertising, design, licenses and much more. Potential sponsors are not able to support our event due to budget cuts and insurances do not cover Force Majeure events. As we are an international event agency we working on protecting the event as well as our essential staff from losing their jobs. The event industry was hit hard from this global epidemic but  we are fighting back. We hope this better explains our current position.”

 

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The Grand White US website now lists 20 potential cities where events could pop up. On its Facebook page, events are scheduled in Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, DC, New York, Chicago, and Detroit in 2023. As the supposed DC event looms this weekend on Saturday, June 4, ticket holders are wondering whether the show will go on.

“We’ve been making plans,” says Rogers when we spoke earlier this week. Like any theme party—especially one with BYOB alcohol, food, and a dress code, advance work is required. “I have a hair appointment. I have a picnic basket I can spray paint white. I have plates and cups ready. But they shut down the ability to communicate with them via Facebook. Right now I’m just going to assume it’s not happening. I just want my money back.”

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.

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