2023 Bite of Seattle Vendors Say Cheq App Made Festival Inaccessible

The Bite of Seattle, founded in 1982, is one of Seattle’s most abiding annual culinary traditions. The now three-day food festival was born out of Reagan-era recession woes in the local restaurant industry, which galvanized a group of owners to put on a weekend event in Greenlake to drum up business. But with the COVID-19 pandemic came a period of even more profound economic uncertainty for restaurants, and the festival went on hiatus from 2020 through 2022.

In May of 2023, Cheq, a Kirkland-based digital payment startup, announced via a press release that it had acquired the rights to produce the beloved festival, and would be transforming it into a “digital-first” experience with the use of its mobile payment and ordering system. Locals swiftly took to Reddit to express skepticism about having to download an app to place orders. “That’s gonna be a disaster,” commented one user in early June. The prediction foreshadowed a tide of complaints about long wait times, app glitches, and double charging from attendees that would flood in during and after the festival on July 21 through July 23.

Chef Grayson Corrales, owner of Capitol Hill tapas bar MariPili, says she and her team were excited for their inaugural stint as vendors at the Bite of Seattle. A booth at the Bite cost MariPili $3,200, and with various permits included the total cost came out to $5,000. Additionally, Cheq kept 16 percent of all sales. For a fledgling restaurant like MariPili — precisely the sort of establishment buoyed by the Bite of years past — Corrales says that’s a significant cut. Many of her restaurant friends elected not to participate after reviewing Cheq’s terms, says Corrales, but MariPili was willing to “make the sacrifice.” Cheq declined to share how much revenue this year’s Bite of Seattle produced for the company.

Corrales says things were “disorganized” in the lead-up to the event, but planning hiccups were minor in comparison to the confusion that reigned once the festival kicked off on Friday, July 21 . “We were essentially just wasting one full-time person in labor” assisting customers who were confused about how to use the Cheq mobile app, says Corrales. “Everyone was griping about it the whole time. It really took away some of the energy from the Bite.”

She says some attendees arrived without cellphones, not knowing they were expected to use the app, and it caused MariPili to lose customers. Other vendors who Eater Seattle spoke with corroborate Corrales’s account. One vendor, who chose to remain anonymous, agrees that confusion over the Cheq app cost them customers, and says they felt accessibility was especially poor for older customers.

Attendees could make purchases from vendors via cash or credit cards, but they could not do so directly — they had to wait in line at one of four customer service booths to acquire vouchers, or else seek out one of 25 Cheq employees who were on-site to provide assistance to more than 75,000 day-one attendees. “The people that needed to do that were already so confused that it was not super accessible,” says Corrales.

Some frustrated vendors started accepting payments via cash and Square, in defiance of the terms of the contract they had signed with Cheq. “Saw some taco vendors accepting cash. Was very cathartic to see them bucking the stupid app only system,” wrote one Reddit user on July 22.

In an email sent to vendors on Sunday, July 23, a Cheq sales executive wrote that “while it is a violation of the contract to do any transactions outside Cheq, we understand that as this was the first Bite using Cheq and that crowds were record-breaking, some transactions did occur outside the platform…we will not enforce this clause of the contract this year.” The email goes on to say that vendors must provide the total dollar amount of transactions made using alternate payment methods during the festival so that the company can fulfill its reporting obligations to the City of Seattle. The email states that vendors will not receive their earnings from the Bite until they provide this information to Cheq.

Corrales also says that, due to a glitch in the app’s back-end, she and her team were “in the dark” about their sales all weekend and did not receive a sales report until several days after the festival, following repeated complaints to Cheq. “It was just a nightmare.” Another vendor says that they were not even aware they were supposed to have back-end access to sales. In an email to Eater Seattle, Cheq CEO Thomas Lapham says that vendors received thorough training in using the app, and that the company was in constant communication with vendors throughout the festival to provide support.

In a thank you posted to social media, Cheq says that use of the app reduced wait times at the festival. The company appears to have turned off comments on the posts, a fact which did not go unnoticed by irate attendees, and the Bite’s official Facebook page is inundated with unhappy remarks.

Lapham says that, “We’ve received positive feedback from both attendees and vendors, with many expressing interests in participating again next year.” Regarding allegations from attendees of double-charges, he says that “CHEQ has received a small number of complaints about double charges. We have refunded duplicate charges.”

The Bite hasn’t been the only local food event plagued by logistical issues this summer; long lines and disappointing serving sizes at Scooped! All-You-Can-Eat Ice Cream Festival earlier this month left attendees aggrieved. So perhaps some of the particularly potent ire directed at Cheq can be attributed to a longstanding disgruntlement nursed by locals who fondly remember a scrappier, DIY Seattle of the past — and the cultural spaces and events, like the Bite, that once defined it. That Cheq is a tech company, and therefore represents the very force which has so radically reshaped the city over the past few decades, probably doesn’t help. “Buying food doesn’t require ‘innovation,’” laments one Facebook user.


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