BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — A Berrien County couple is defending their family business following complaints from clients over their handling of wedding postponements due to COVID-19.

Following ABC 57’s initial report on bride Randi Hoffman and her fiancé’s financial battle with the Blue Dress Barn, a dozen couples sent tips about similar experiences with the venue owners.

Hoffman had her wedding scheduled for June 19, but with social distancing measures, occupancy limits and mask requirements set in motion for subsequent months in Michigan, she realized holding a wedding for nearly 300 people wouldn’t be possible.

So, she looked forward to 2021, but that’s when she says the problems began.

“She gave me dates for 2021 at the Blue Dress Barn and in order for us to take it, we would officially have to cancel our 2020 wedding, forfeit our $4,500 then pay another $4,500,” said Hoffman.

The additional couples who sent news tips also say they’ve had similar problems rescheduling with the owners. Some saying that while they paid for a weekend date, the owners only offered them Thursdays – and without any money back for switching from a weekend date to a work-day wedding.

When some couples tried rescheduling their wedding to 2021, they say they got the same response as Hoffman – forfeit all of the money paid for the 2020 wedding and re-pay the entire balance for booking a new date.

One couple even saying they were able to move their wedding at Millcreek Wilde, a sister venue, to September but were asked to sign a document saying if for whatever reason the event is cancelled they won’t get any money back.

“We didn’t really want to sign that, but at the time it was either sign this and get a new date, or don’t sign this and lose the money anyway because you’re going to lose your June date,” said bride Kelly Tomaska. “Multiple emails were written requesting the possibility of a refund. They sent another contract stating that if this is not signed our date would be lost and there would be no reissuing of the funds we paid in full,” said groom Anthony Miniscalco.

But Amy and Kirby Briske are coming to the defense of their business. The couple started doing weddings at the Blue Dress Barn nearly 20 years ago, after Amy purchased – and restored – the abandoned barn in Benton Harbor. The Briske’s, even getting married at the Blue Dress Barn themselves.

They say in all their years of business, this is the first time they’ve had to hire an attorney.

The Briske’s say they offered any available weekend dates in 2020 to couples who had to move their weddings, but all the remaining dates were quickly booked. So, they then offered Thursdays – a day that’s not normally open during their season – to try and help clients walk down the aisle.

“We’ve moved more than 50 weddings forward to new dates already, with tens of thousands of dollars lost in the process,” said Kirby Briske, “Because each date we move forward to the new year represents a day that’s not available to new clientele.”

They also offered another option to couples wanting to reschedule in 2021, an option they say was originally brought to them by one of their own clients.

“To cancel their date, forfeiting the moneys that they’ve paid to date,” said Kirby. “They’d put down a new deposit, with a new rental agreement to choose the date that they want – as available based on the calendar – and we give them a discount of $1,000. It still represents a $1,000 loss to us.”

And while that $1,000 discount may seem like a good faith gesture to some, the couples complaining say it’s not good enough.

“The contract describes a 25% cancellation fee if we rebook our date; $912, which we were willing to pay,” said groom John Alsterda. “However, Blue Dress Barn’s new policy would require us to pay $3,750 to rebook and that’s not including the $4,500 we already paid.”

ABC 57 was given a copy of Randi and her fiancé’s contract that they both signed. The contract clearly states that there is a no refund policy and no force majeure – a contract clause that would allow the couples to cancel.

“We are protected by the technicality because the insurance industry does not sell any policy that covers pandemics,” said Kirby.

But Berrien County attorney Mark Miller says there may be light at the end of this long tunnel for the couples.

“Michigan does have a rule of law on contracts regarding ‘Has a contract become impossible to fulfill?’ which it is in part here, because it’s a contract for 250 people to go to the wedding. I can tell you even at the beginning of March or mid-February none of this was reasonably foreseeable, and this couple signed their contract for the Blue Dress Barn a long time ago – a year ago,” said Miller.

However, no one wins in this story. Because if the couples don’t pay, the venue owners say they will suffer.

“If anybody thinks that we’re not financially impacted by COVID, they’re wrong,” said Amy.

The Briske’s don’t qualify for a small business loan and are receiving no financial assistance, those are issues on top of the money they’ve lost for re-booking and the hundreds of thousands they spend each year to maintain all three of their venues – Blue Dress Barn, Millcreek Wilde and Sundance.

Multiple couples have also come to the owners’ defense: