Dîner en Blanc Upsets Foodies; New Event Launched

The whimsical, pop-up picnic – Dîner en Blanc – intends to bring a community together over a shared meal. But an error-filled registration process frustrated hundreds hoping to attend, created a divide among Philly foodies and spurred a group to create their own soiree – Diner en Noir.

“I wanted it to change, so I decided to be the change I wanted to see,” said Chris Nowaczyk. The full-time cancer researcher founded Diner en Noir moments after spending 45 minutes trying to buy tickets for Dîner en Blanc (DEB) Thursday. 

DEB, which began in Paris more than 25 years ago, is a well-organized yet seemingly impromptu dinner party where diners dress only in white clothing and eat at tables topped with white cloths. The public outdoor location remains a secret until only minutes before the Aug. 21 meal begins. 

This year, one ticket to DEB Philadelphia cost $68.50 and got the buyer two seats.

A presale opportunity was offered exclusively to about half of the 2,500 people who dined along JFK Boulevard last year. Those returning attendees also can sponsor a friend, who then was invited to buy two slots in a second presale round.

In a third and final phase of ticket sales, anyone who had added their name to a “waiting list” was invited via email to log on to DEB Philadelphia's site at 10:30 a.m. Thursday to try for the unfilled seats.

But thousands of people were greeted with an error message as they tried to purchase their seats -- aggravating Nowaczyk, who was also upset organizers did not disclose the number of remaining spots.

“We filled to capacity as 10,000 people tried to register simultaneously,” Aymeric Pasquier and Sandy Safi, co-founders of Dîner en Blanc International, wrote in a Facebook message. “Consequently, our system became temporarily unavailable. Rather than posting a message informing you that we reached maximum capacity of guests, our server posted an ‘error message.’”

Yet Nowacyzk says this isn’t the first time DEB Philadelphia’s website malfunctioned. “Every year, it’s the same issue,” he said.

Natanya DiBona, who voluntarily co-hosts the event with Kayli Moran, said her team is just as upset over the technical glitch, which has not occurred for DEBs elsewhere in the world as interest in our area grew faster than in other cities.

“Last year we were assured by International that this would not happen to us again,” DiBona said. “I’m in no way going to defend this software system. It is international’s and we were forced to use it.”

She and Moran personally reached out to 300 people by phone or email yesterday to address their complaints.

And she insists the technology will be changed before registration begins next year.

Along with an upgraded system online, Nowaczyk wants more transparency from the organizers.

“They didn’t say there are 1,000 seats left and we sent out 10,000 emails,” Nowaczyk said.

DiBona, however, stands by the structure.

“It gives everyone the opportunity to log in and do it,” said DiBona, who started planning the event with her co-host last fall.

Diner en Noir will take a different approach by letting people know how many seats remain as they get purchased. "The process of getting signed up shouldn't end in tears or anger," Nowaczyk said.

DiBona welcomes another community-oriented, food-based event to Philadelphia, but says the frustration of those who feel “excluded” from the all-white affair – as Diner en Noir describes itself on its Facebook page – is unfounded.

“If it is a concert, or a sporting event, there is a limited amount of tickets and limited time [to buy],”she said.

Adding more seats isn't doable, as the space dictates capacity, she said.

Each year, DiBona and Moran work to find a public space that can accommodate more people than the year prior. The inaugural event in 2012 had 1,300 guests. The following year, 2,500 people took part. Next month, 3,500 people will dine at the surprise location.

“I do not want to compromise the experience for people by getting too large too quickly,” said DiBona, who along with nine other volunteers, spent thousands of hours over the past four months organizing the secretive celebration.

Nowacyzk partnered with 14 others to organize an alternative, which they plan to hold on the same night as DEB Philadelphia.

Despite the overlap, Nowaczyk says Diner en Noir is not meant as a protest.

“It should be flattering,” he said. Still in early stages, Diner en Noir will be part Night Market and part Dîner en Blanc, he said.

Ticket prices, which are not yet set, will cover operating costs and a donation for an organization that works with the hungry.

Participants can bring their own food, as they often do at DEB, or they can purchase food from a vendor. Tables and chairs will be provided; DEB guests bring their own.

“It will be more accessible for people,” Nowaczyk said.

He acknowledges that the time constraints make it difficult to guarantee Diner en Noir will occur Aug. 21, but says they have already taken steps to ensure it will occur before this winter.

“There were changes people wanted to make,” he said. “We intend to do what the people want.”

Contact Alison Burdo at 610.668.5635, alison.burdo@nbcuni.com or follow @NewsBurd on Twitter.

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