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The News Journal ~ March 20th, 2011

Just imagine the sense of panic: You're hosting a business event for 250 people that has taken months of planning and countless details, when suddenly the venue calls to cancel your booking -- two days before the big night.

It was no mere hypothetical meltdown for Frank Pagliaro earlier this month, when his Golden Wine Event was set to get under way at the Hotel du Pont, as it has every year for the past 13 years. The hotel catering had been lined up for three separate gatherings, the stately Gold Ballroom was reserved, and event regulars already had rooms booked there for the weekend.

Then, Pagliaro -- owner of Frank's Union Wine Mart in Wilmington -- got the phone call. What would ensue over the next 48 hours is a tale of extraordinary cooperation and remarkable good fortune, a classic example of how the close business connections that are typical of this city's scene can come together -- especially when there's a chance to upstage such a well-heeled rival as "The Hotel."

In past years, Pagliaro says, that business-to-business familiarity had meant lots of informality and flexibility when it came to contract particulars between him and the hotel. This year, though, the hotel said he had failed to show his event would bring in enough revenue to meet the hotel's minimum contractual requirements -- a breach that Pagliaro acknowledges, but says had never been an issue for the hotel before.

Hanging up, Pagliaro tossed off a few choice expletives, and figured he would have to cancel his business's marquee event and refund the $150-per-person tickets. Finding a new venue on such short notice seemed impossible. Getting the event license transferred seemed an insurmountable bureaucratic obstacle.

The hotel told him he could order more food or pay a rental fee to meet the revenue demands, but that option struck him as ludicrous and a bit insensitive -- especially considering the event's proceeds would benefit the Children's Tumor Foundation.

"It's a charity event," he said. "So for us to incur unnecessary costs like food or rental fees obviously didn't make sense."

Then -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- it was Pagliaro's wife, Nina, who saved the day.

"Why don't you call Harry's Savoy Ballroom to see if they can accommodate?" she asked him.

"I'm sure they've been booked for a year," Frank grumbled. Without much hope, he dialed.

Erica Engstenberg, Harry's director of special events, took the call. "Let me check," she said to Pagliaro. "Yes, looks like it's one of the few Saturdays in 2011 that's empty."

One detail down, only another few hundred to go.

A speedy transfer

Next, with visions of impenetrable red tape swirling in his head, he asked the Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to transfer the "gathering license" to Harry's.

An hour later, it was done. "Talk about efficiency for the state of Delaware," Pagliaro said.

Quickly, astonishingly, the pieces were falling into place. Dave's Limousine Service said it would be no problem busing the guests from the hotel to Harry's. Just up the street from the hotel, Deep Blue restaurant said it could gladly put together a five-course menu for Friday's Winemaker Dinner. At nearby Chelsea Tavern, partner Joe Van Horn and chef Sean Mc- Neice said of course their crew could handle the other five-course dinner for the Saturday-afternoon Champagne Brunch prior to the main event.

Everything seemed on the road to salvation, but the ordeal would offer a few more moments of sheer astonishment for Pagliaro. On Saturday night, after he had overseen the transfer of his guests and was looking forward to a glass of wine or two himself, he noticed the Gold Ballroom was silent.

"The ballroom was empty on Saturday! That's what blew me away," he said. '"I was like, you've got to be kidding me."

Why the hotel would turn down paying guests in favor of an empty ballroom remains a mystery -- officials there wouldn't offer details of the incident.

"It was canceled because Mr. Pagliaro failed to meet the terms of the contract agreement. It's as simple as that," said Caroline Grubb, hotel spokeswoman, declining further comment.

As to why the hotel waited until two days before the event to cancel is also a puzzler to Pagliaro. "They definitely knew" what the revenue numbers would be during the planning process, he said.

Event attendee Gene Blum, who runs the Drexelbrook Catering company in Drexel Hill, Pa., said it is unfathomable why the hotel would so blithely ruin its chances of hosting the event again.

"My impression is that they made a mistake," he said. "A contract is a relationship. Everything is not about money'."

That mistake was aggravated by the hotel's willingness to alienate the 250 people who attended, he said.

"That's a nice client base. We're talking affluent [customers]. We're talking people that are going to frequent the hotel" in the future had they not been snubbed, he said.

Connections for the future

For the restaurants and other businesses who came to Pagliaro's rescue, it was a hectic time, a difficult feat, but also a welcome chance to rally their teams and conquer the challenge.

At Harry's, the ballroom's chefs came in early and worked late. "It was quite the weekend for them, and they pulled it off very well," Engstenberg said.

At Deep Blue, there were initial -- and ultimately discarded -- efforts to replicate some of the hotel's event menu. "I didn't really care for it," said Paul Bouchard, managing partner there.

At Chelsea Tavern and the other restaurants, there was also just a smidge of schadenfreude. "I guess there's that competitive thing, so it feels good -- not to take something from the hotel, but doing something on the same level," said Van Horn, whose team prepared such dishes as foie gras on french toast and pulled pork frittatas for the brunch event.

"Now we're talking about doing something else with Frank," he said.

Perhaps predictably, Pagliaro is less than enthusiastic about returning to the hotel for next year's event. "I will continue to support the DuPont Theatre and will continue to dine in the wonderful Green Room as well as stay overnight in the hotel, but I would not book an event in the future," he said.

Bouchard was less diplomatic in his phrasing.

"They're done. They'll never get that event again."

Contact Eric Ruth at 324-2428 or eruth@delawareonline.com.




My many thanks for your comments; I am humbled by your support. I just wanted to convey to everyone that I chose to host Frank's Golden Wine Event at The Hotel du Pont for 13 consecutive years because their staff has always been top notch from their management to their culinary team to the valet guys out on the curb. The Gold Ballroom is second to none in our region for the mere beauty and elegance which became synonymous to my annual charity wine event. Their presentation and quality of food is simply awe-inspiring. I am saddened that the current management team was not more flexible this year. I'm sure they have their reasons and perhaps it was more profitable to have an empty ballroom than to host my 250 guests on March 12th. Harry's Savoy Ballroom sure didn't think so.

I raise my glass and make a toast to the 13 successful years in The Gold Ballroom. But, it's now time to move on to other venues.

CHEERS to GM Kelly O'Hanlon, Director of Special Events Erica Engstenburg, Chefs David Banks and Patrick D'Amico, our Captain Barbara Bradley and Xavier Teixido's entire staff for pulling together to make our 14th Frank's Golden Wine Event the miracle that it turned out to be. Our Rare Wine Silent Auction netted a total of $19,026 which benefitted the The Children's Tumor Foundation. What a shame to think that almost didn't happen.

Next Spring will be our 15th Annual Frank's Golden Wine Event... and we are going to blow it out! Over the top in every way!! I have to sift through many comments and suggestions and yours are certainly welcome... please send me a personal email Frank@FranksWine.com The 2012 date and venue will be announced this Summer.

I was overwhelmed by the 37 comments and 43 Likes on both my personal and FranksWine.com facebook pages. And besides the hundreds of positive emails I've received Gene Blum - catering executive from Drexelbrook Catering - summed it all up nicely in his blog, thank you, Gene!

CHEERS to all ~ Frank Pagliaro


Harry's Rescues a Night Cont....

10:10 am
(Ring, ring, ring)... "Hello, Harry's Savoy Ballroom, Erica speaking."
Frank:"Hello Erica, this is Frank Pagliaro. Do you by chance have the ballroom
available this Saturday?"
Erica: "Let me check." (15 second pause) "Yes, looks like it's one of the few
Saturdays in 2012 that it's empty."
Frank:"Can you accommodate 250 guests and vendors on Saturday for
Frank's Golden Wine Event?"
Erica: "We can do anything!"

10:15 am
(Ring, ring, ring)... "Hello, Delaware Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, Therese speaking"
Frank:"Hi Therese, this is Frank Pagliaro...blah, blah, blah. Is it possible
to get a transfertoday of the Gathering License that was issued for our charity
event at The Hotel du Pont to Harry's Savoy Ballroom?"
Therese: "Let me check on that for you, can you hold?"

11:15 am
(Ding.) Email arrives in in-box with file attached containing the transfer
of Gathering License.

11:16 am
(Ring, ring, ring)... "Hello, Dave's Limousine, Kelly speaking"
Frank:"Hello Kelly, blah, blah, blah. Do you have a limo bus available for this
Saturday night to shuttle folks from The Hotel du Pont to Harry's Savoy Ballroom?"
Kelly: "Yes, we do."

11:30 am
(Ring, ring, ring)... "Hello Deep Blue, Paul Bouchard speaking"
Frank:"Hey Paul it's Frank, blah blah blah. Can you and Chef Matthew Crist put
together a 5 course menu for tomorrow night for our Winemaker Dinner that was supposed to be held at The Hotel du Pont?"
Paul: "Absolutely, Frank. Can I send Chef over to taste the wines so he can properly pair?"

11:45 am
(Ring, ring, ring)... "Hello, Chelsea Tavern, Joe van Horn speaking"
Frank: "Hello Joe... blah, blah, blah. Can you and Chef Sean McNeice put together
a 5 course menu for Saturday afternoon for our Champagne Brunch that
was supposed to be held at the Hotel du Pont?"
Joe: "Of course we can, Frank... how many are you expecting?"

12:00 noon
Begin drafting email to vendors, staff and guests about change of venue

1:00 pm - 8:30 pm
Fielded over 150 emails from vendors, staff and guests.

9:00 pm
Arrive home for dinner and a big fat glass of Pinot Noir!

So, that's how it pretty much went down. I feel so fortunate that everyone at Deep Blue, Chelsea Tavern and Harry's Savoy Ballroom went above and beyond to create impressive menus and were so willing to make things happen. We had a total of 4 cancellations from folks who didn't want to switch... I was expecting 100 or more cancellations. I am humbled by the everyone's willingness to trust me on the change. Once I received confirmations from all three venues I had total confidence in them that it would be a flawless weekend.

The Rare Wine Silent Auction so far netted $17,308 to benefit
The Children's Tumor Foundation!