GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — What do brides from Florida, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Arizona and others have in common? They all say their weddings were nearly ruined by a catering company in Gatlinburg. They’re accusing the owner of Happy Pinecone Cafe of taking their money, not following through on promises, and showing up hours late the day of the event — if they showed up at all.
When Christine Packard was planning her destination wedding in East Tennessee, she knew exactly what she was looking for. “I knew I wanted to get married there. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. And I wanted to support a local business, somebody small and my maid of honor actually found her.”
Sarrah Willhite is the owner of Happy Pinecone Cafe. Around this time last year, the business had a five-star rating on Google, and Packard was sold. “I emailed her, we went and visited Sarrah in December and her kids. We ate at her cafe and we booked her.”
Being from Florida, Packard mostly communicated by phone and email. She says Willhite was responsive and easy to get ahold of, but it was a week before her wedding that something strange happened. “The Facebook page was closed. That was the first red flag. Then I decided to google her because why is the Facebook shut down and then I saw the big permanently closed.”
What made the situation eerier was what Packard learned after her wedding. She wasn’t the first victim. Something similar happened a few months prior to Lexie Follett. She had traveled to Gatlinburg from Wisconsin for her wedding.
Follett said, “We moved forward and hired her for all three meals for our wedding. And unfortunately, all three had some big fails within them. For the Friday rehearsal dinner, she was 30 minutes late without half of the stuff we agreed on in our contract. Then on Saturday, our actual wedding day we had also a brunch with her where she didn’t show up until two hours after serving time. And finally, we canceled her for our dinner.”
Her big day was ultimately catered by Olive Garden and the $4,300 they’d spent on catering with Happy Pinecone Cafe, was gone. “I had really hoped that this was a one-off thing with her. She had texted us after the fiasco and had outlined that she was going through a lot of personal hardships and so I was hoping that it was just a one-off mistake and that she wouldn’t do this to other people but now it seems like it’s just an intentional trend, unfortunately.”
It was the same story for Kelsey Jobe from Kentucky; she hired the Happy Pinecone Cafe for her cocktail hour. “I had no idea until actually during dinner when I was asking people you know how was the food, how were things, how was the cocktail hour and that’s kind of when I realized that there wasn’t any food during the cocktail hour because we couldn’t start the cocktail hour when she didn’t show up.”
Dozens of brides across the country now have two things in common — they had beautiful Gatlinburg weddings and they’re all currently going through a long process to get refunds from what they call a nightmare catering experience.
WATE 6 On Your Side obtained a statement from Willhite, and in part, she said, “I had an excellent business in August with five-star ratings and preferred catering status.” She added that a lack of employees and being a busy single mom as an explanation and said, “I will file a lawsuit of character defamation, harassment and cyberbullying if this is not left alone.”
In the statement, Willhite claims to have sent all of her clients an email explaining the mishaps. “I sent a mass email to my clients explaining how incredibly sorry I was and that it was not intended and even promised that I would pay them back but that it would take time.”
None of the brides we spoke to have received refunds from Willhite.
Based on reviews and social media posts, there may be dozens of more brides who have had similar experiences with this business. According to the Better Business Bureau of East Tennessee, Happy Pinecone Cafe is not registered with them.