Tuesday, November 22, 2011 , Updated 9:26 p.m., November 29, 2011
UPDATEDx2: Tomato Battle in Dallas was a bit of a scam
Charity event not so charitable.
DALLAS In the annals of scams, the Tomato Battle is relatively innocuous. Con a bunch of 20-somethings into handing over $40 for the opportunity to throw tomatoes at each other in a parking lot, and pretend you're doing it for charity. No one's exactly suffering, and if the charity recipients don't get their money, so be it.
But it's still worth noting that the Tomato Battle says one thing and does another, while raking in thousands of dollars. The one in Dallas on November 12 netted an estimated $40,000, with a turnout of approximately 1,500 (and a smaller group returning the next day for a follow-up Mud Battle).
The Tomato Battle backstory is murky. There's a well-designed website and the obligatory presence on Facebook, but no office or contact number. There've been at least five tomato battles in the U.S. in 2011. Marketed mostly on Facebook, it's positioned as a carefree, craaaazy event: "drinking beer, enjoying live bands, and throwing tomatoes at strangers." According to Dee Ann Bell, a staffer at Fair Park where the Dallas event took place, the organizers paid their rental fee and did a good job of cleaning the parking lot of tomatoes and mud.
What the organizers did not do was fulfill their advertised claim to donate proceeds to the North Texas Food Bank and "another charity to be named." There was no other charity ever named, and the North Texas Food Bank knew nothing about the event.
"We didn't receive any money from them," said spokeswoman Kim Smith. "We wouldn't have even known about it if you hadn't brought it to my attention. But we probably wouldn't have given them our sanction, since we don't condone any waste of food."
The North Texas Food Bank isn't the only food bank that's had shady dealings with the Tomato Battle. A food bank in Seattle had to chase them down to get a fraction of the donation promised, and another food bank in Southern California has yet to see its check come in.
The Seattle battle (zing!) took place on September 24. Tomato Battle organizers contacted Rick Jump, executive director of the White Center Food Bank, to whom they pledged "at least $4,000 to $5,000." In exchange, Jump was asked to supply volunteers.
"We're a small food bank, but we recruited a few volunteers to help them," Jump said. "After it was over, I called to find out how things went. The person who answered the phone said quickly, 'I'm not with Tomato Battle anymore.' So I contacted somebody off their website and was promised a check. After persistently pursuing them, I did get a check for $2,000. To be honest, I am hoping the check doesn't bounce. I would never work with them again."
The Los Angeles event took place on October 22. As in Dallas, it took place on the abandoned county fairgrounds, with Los Angeles Regional Food Bank as the designated charity.
"We haven't received the funds yet," said Food Bank director Michael Flood. "We had them sign an agreement with us and the timeframe was 30 days, which officially gives them until Tuesday."
The irony of designating food banks as their charity is that the event on some level squanders food. On their website, the tomatoes are described as overly ripe and thus inedible; however, some attendees at the Dallas event complained that some tomatoes were not ripe.
"They told us they'd be using tomatoes that were inedible," said Flood, of the L.A. food bank. "Obviously that would be bad news if they were wasting tomatoes."
In Dallas, the tomatoes came from Del Monte. Del Monte refrained from providing figures, but the June 25th Tomato Battle in Copper Mountain, Colo., used two semi-trailers' worth. A semi holds 1,600 boxes of tomatoes, 25 pounds each. One box of #2 tomatoes, whose appearance is flawed, costs about $5. Estimated cost of tomatoes: around $15,000.
According to Tom Gooch, event supervisor at Fair Park, the Tomato Battle and follow-up Mud Battle drew 1,500 people over the course of two days. They paid $30 to $50 each, for a total of about $60,000. Subtract $15K for tomatoes and another $5,000 on property rental and expenses, and you net $40,000.
The Tomato Battle was co-founded by Max Kraner and Clint Nelsen, a pair of entrepreneurial types with ties to Portland and Seattle who paint themselves as action hero types, into snowboarding, mountain biking, and travel. Both were in Dallas for the event -- Nelsen described the Texas event on Twitter as "epiccc . . . craziest battle by far" -- but neither returned phone calls or emails.
UPDATE: After this story was published and after it was picked up by the Seattle Weekly, Kraner and Nelsen began sending emails and tweets in response to some of the statements in the story.
They dispute the estimated costs and profit, but would not provide actual numbers. "I won't get into exact figures but I will say the event was not profitable," Nelsen said in an email.
Kraner claims he sent the North Texas Food Bank a check for $800 (a different amount from the $750 amount he quoted to the Seattle Weekly), but as of Tuesday, November 29, no check has arrived, according to two NTX Food Bank staffers. And a spokeswoman from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank says that they have also not yet received the check for $500 that Kraner claimed he sent last week (a check that Nelsen told LA Food Bank staffers he'd mailed the week before).
Nelsen said, "I am working to make sure that all of the checks we've promised to food banks have been made good on. It's been really disappointing to see their responses to the contributions."
UPDATEx2: The North Texas Food Bank reports on Tuesday night that it received a check for $800.
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