Christian Hayes stands in the garden seating area Wednesday at The Garrison restaurant in Yarmouth, where he has been offering single group, 10-course dinners on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. He sold tickets for the dinners through Brown Paper Tickets, which is having financial trouble and is paying its customers late or not at all. The company owes Hayes more than $10,000. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Christian Hayes was anticipating a banner year for his restaurant in 2020.

After opening The Garrison in Yarmouth in July 2019, he was riding a wave of great reviews and had been busy all winter.

But the coronavirus pandemic struck and restaurants like his had to shut down for the spring. Then his business took another financial hit when the promise of a lucrative fall and a chance to recoup some of the losses went sour because of problems with a Seattle-based ticket broker that sold spots at his chef’s table.

After shifting to takeout fare this summer because of the pandemic, Hayes felt the pull of offering fine dining again, so he offered diners the option of eating dinner outside his restaurant on weekends this month, with meals at a table in the restaurant’s garden overlooking the Royal River.

It didn’t come cheap – $200 a person, or six at the table for $1,000, but this wasn’t takeout burgers, sandwiches and salads. The menus called for 10 courses, including  seafood, such as octopus and oysters; game, such as venison and rabbit; and fresh produce grown in the garden steps from where the diners feasted.

“Obviously, the world didn’t need fine dining back in March, but by late summer, people were clamoring for the option,” Hayes said, and he arranged for an operation in Seattle called Brown Paper Tickets to sell the spots. The dinners sold out in less than a minute, fast enough to convince him to add a second seating on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, and they quickly sold out as well.

But while he’s happy with how the meals have come off – he plans to continue the upscale dining option into October – the finances have not gone as smoothly.

Brown Paper Tickets took customers’ payments and booked the dinners, but hasn’t forwarded the proceeds to Hayes, who said he is owed $10,000 and climbing. The company typically charges a service fee of around $1 per ticket, along with a commission of 5 percent of the ticket price.

Hayes used Brown Paper Tickets a few years ago when he offered cooking classes through his catering company, Dandelion. There were no problems then, he said.

This time, Hayes has tried calling Brown Paper Tickets, but reaches only a recording that says the company has shut down most of its phone lines, citing the impact of COVID-19. Emails have gone unanswered, Hayes said, and he’s contacted the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and Seattle’s Better Business Bureau. Both told him they’ve fielded dozens of complaints about Brown Paper Tickets and are investigating, but can give him no answers yet.

In a statement emailed to the Portland Press Herald, Brown Paper Tickets said it has been focused on refunding customers’ payments for tickets to events that were canceled because of the pandemic.

“Our team has been working hard to initiate full refunds to ticket holders (including all service fees) and pay event organizers,” the statement said. “This is a long process with thousands of events canceled, postponed, or abandoned, and we are unable to offer an estimated timeline at this moment. Like many businesses, we were unprepared for a crisis of the scale of COVID-19, but we are making headway.”

The company said it understood the frustrations of customers, and was “working to find a solution that treats our customers right.”

Hayes’ restaurant is not the only business in Maine feeling frustrated and shortchanged.

Elaine Bard, the producing artistic director for Some Theater Company in Bangor, said her theater group had to wait months to get payment from Brown Paper Tickets for performances in February.

Normally, the payments would be made within a few days after each performance, she said. But in February, Brown Paper Tickets sent her an email asking her not to process any uncashed checks. Eventually, the tab ran to $14,000, she said.

“It was a whole long drawn-out process,” Bard said. “COVID hit, so we needed those funds.”

Some Theater Company canceled its spring and most of its summer performances, she said. It had a weekend show in August and plans another production next month, but with seating for only 27 patrons due to social distancing guidelines.

Bard contacted the Washington Attorney General’s Office in May and then was able to work out a payment schedule with Brown Paper Tickets to get payments of $2,000 a week until the account was settled.

“They actually did it,” she said of the payments. “We were kind of skeptical.”

They have since switched to another ticket vendor, Bard said. The Augusta troupe had been doing business with the Seattle company for five years. Bard said they were recommended by a friend of her’s who said she liked their relaxed and friendly style.

And “they were fairly cheap,” Bard said, and offered customer service around the clock.

Brown Paper Tickets was charging her theater company $1.15 a ticket plus the commission, she said, and Bard liked the fact that half of the fees were directed to charities. The new ticketing company she works with, Bard said, charges $2 a ticket plus a commission, but unlike Brown Paper Tickets, allows her to control refund policies and build her own seating chart for ticket prices based on the location of the seats.

Brown Paper Tickets also owes Oratorio Chorale, based in Brunswick, more than $7,000 from a performance in March, said Emily Isaacson, artistic director and conductor of the group.

She said Oratorio Chorale had used Brown Paper Tickets for the last five years and the company would usually process a payment within seven to 10 days of a performance.

The fee was 99 cents plus 5 percent of each ticket sold and “once the virtual box office closes, they send you a check … usually,” she said in an email.

Isaacson said the ticket company has not responded to inquiries since the performance, and she, like the others, has contacted the Washington Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau.

“No one has accepted responsibility for this loss,” she said. “As you can imagine, $7,000 is a lot of money for a small performing arts organization, especially this year during the pandemic.”

So far, Isaacson said, her organization has only received automated email responses to inquiries and a check for $425 in early July along with a note that said they were working to schedule more payments to make up the amount owed.

No further payments have been received, she said.

Isaacson said hundreds of organizations around the country have complained about the problems with Brown Paper Tickets and there’s even a Facebook page, “Stiffed by Brown Paper Tickets,” with hundreds of members.

Earlier this month, lawyers representing ticket buyers and those representing event producers filed suits against Brown Paper Tickets, the Seattle Times reported. The Washington Attorney General’s Office has said it was looking into nearly 500 complaints it has received, but won’t comment about whether it plans to file a lawsuit.


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