No one expects their dream wedding to be upended by an “act of God,” but that’s what happened to McKenzie May and Jesus Ortiz.
It wasn’t to be.
“Despite our reception canceling on us, we managed to have a wonderful day thanks to family, friends and our church,” said May, 32. “However, one black cloud remains over our heads from that day: the money we paid to our reception hall.”
Sandy caused disruptions of all kinds when the storm arrived in late October. Thousands of businesses across the state were severely damaged, while others were without power for two weeks or longer.
It was the power issue that caused Pantagis to cancel the couple’s reception.
The couple got it. These were extraordinary times and extraordinary conditions.
What the bride and groom couldn’t understand was how the company could keep nearly $10,000 of their money without the couple having anything to show for it.
“We both work hard and do not have money just to throw around,” May said. “We were paying for our own wedding.”
BEFORE THE BIG DAY
May, a special education teacher at Bloomfield High School, remembers seeing Ortiz, a school custodian who she describes as “incredibly handsome,” when she first started working at the school four years ago.
I took a year before May had the guts to invite him to join her in the lunchroom, and they hit it off.
“We have been inseparable ever since and I knew from the very beginning that he was the guy for me,” she said. “On our one-year (dating) anniversary, we went to this fancy Italian restaurant and he asked me to marry him.”
She said yes.
May and Ortiz said they chose Pantagis for their wedding reception for two reasons. The first was the atmosphere set by stunning stained glass windows and cascading staircases.
The second was the price.
“We had to keep it within a sensible budget,” May said. “They had wedding packages that started at only $55 per person and open bar packages that were only another $15 per person. For two people on a serious budget, we couldn’t beat those prices.”
They signed the contract for the 105-guest reception in September 2011.
One of May’s cousins put down the $1,500 deposit for the couple. The balance would be due three days before the affair.
“We paid the balance 19 days before our reception was to take place,” May said. “We did not have to pay until three days beforehand, but I didn’t want to deal with the stress of it in the week leading up to the wedding. You have no idea how much I regret paying in advance now.”
Because of Sandy.
On the afternoon of Nov. 1 — less than 48 hours before the party — May said Pantagis called to cancel the reception.
“Their reason was that they still did not have power and did not know when they would get it back,” she said. “I was then told that even if they did get power back, they would not be able to get the food or staff in time to hold my wedding.”
May and Ortiz didn’t have time to argue about money. They had to make their reception happen.
They had friends and family coming in from Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Florida, Connecticut, New York and all over New Jersey — some staying at hotels in Pennsylvania because that was the closest they could get after the storm.
“Jesus’s cousin John — one of the groomsmen — still showed despite having his house flooded that week,” May said. “At one point, he had to ride his bike to the tuxedo store in South Jersey to pick up his tux so that he could still be part of our special day.”
The ceremony was to be held at St. Peter’s Church in Belleville. The church offered the gymnasium at its sister school for the reception.
“We decorated using items from the dollar store and our friends and family brought all kinds of delicious food and desserts,” May said. “We danced and we ate like gluttons. When it was all over our guests, Jesus and I cleaned up the gymnasium as the DJ played.”
When the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, May called Pantagis.
“Pantagis has done nothing but give us the runaround since they called to cancel on us,” May said.
May was very upfront with Bamboozled about the language of the contract.
It said money will not be refunded if services are cancelled because of “an act of God (e.g., flood, power, etc.) or other unforeseen events or circumstances.”
It also said if the couple cancelled the reception, they’d be entitled to a two-thirds refund.
It also said that the couple didn’t have to pay as early as they did, and that the balance was due three days before the event.
May said she understands that businesses lost out because of the aftermath of the storm, but when she called to discuss a possible refund, she said, she was rebuffed at every turn.
She said the general manager promised that he’d speak with the owners and come up with a figure.
May said when she called again to see if there was a resolution, the general manager changed his tune.
“He claimed that he had never said that and that I either misheard or made it up. Seriously?” she said.
As part of the conversations, May said the general manager told her all the food for her reception was ruined because of the storm.
“That means that Pantagis had all my food at least a week in advance,” she said. “Am I not entitled to fresh food and isn’t that what insurance is for?”
May said when she finally spoke to Maria Pantagis, one of the owners, the conversation was less than satisfactory.
“Pantagis had the nerve to tell us that we could have a really amazing first year anniversary party,” May said. “What teacher that you know has $10,000 to spend on a ‘really amazing’ first year anniversary party? None that I know.”
We wanted to know if Pantagis would consider giving this couple a break, despite the contract, given the widespread losses from Sandy.
The answer was an absolute “no.”
“[May] told me she had the wedding someplace else,” said banquet manager Al De Rienzo. “In all my years of doing this, I’ve never heard of someone going someplace else to have a wedding when they already paid us,” he said, noting that other clients whose parties were disrupted by Sandy simply rescheduled.
He said Pantagis offered the couple a party, or even two separate parties, in the future.
De Rienzo said he didn’t know when Pantagis received deliveries, or if deliveries for this party in particular were received before the storm. He did confirm Pantagis had insurance to cover such losses, though he said he didn’t know the details.
“I told her if she wants, take us to court and we’ll let the judge and the jury decide,” he said.
That may be the newlyweds’ only choice.
“It is most definitely a story to remember,” May said. “Whether we get our money back or not, we still have our happy ending because Jesus and I have each other and because so many people went out of their way to make our wedding a special day despite Hurricane Sandy.”