Dining a la cart in village
- Published: April 19, 2012
New eateries are popping up all over Yellow Springs this spring, but don’t expect to sit down for dinner. The vendors are mobile, and so are their patrons, who have no trouble walking, talking and eating their cheesy hot dogs and fresh-cut fries on the street. Some local business owners have concerns about unfair competition from the mobile business owners whose overhead is a fraction of their own. And due to a recent complaint, the Village has begun to enforce a requirement that the properties hosting mobile vendors be approved for the conditional use of those businesses. But customers have become accustomed to the stands, and come from both near and far all week long for a quick, tasty and affordable meal on the go.
When Patrick and Mindy Harney rolled out their rainbow hot dog cart in front of Dragon Tree Tattoo & Gifts last week, they were thrilled to find out that people still crave the original urban street snack. Brother Bear and Mindy’s Lot Dogs sold 40 dogs the first day they were out at the corner of Corry Street and Xenia Avenue offering their $3 all-beef frankfurters and SmartDog vegetarian hotdogs with various toppings.
“We’re excited and really happy about doing this,” said Mindy Harney, who plans to be open 11 a.m.–4 p.m. most weekdays and later into the night on summer weekends the couple isn’t vending an event elsewhere. Harney decided she wanted a cart after sampling hotdogs made by local restaurant owners Bob Swaney and Loren Williams, who were contemplating the food cart business. “Right then I knew I wanted one.”
The Harneys operated Brother Bear’s Coffeehouse on Corry Street for three years before selling the business last year to Michael Herington, who changed the name to the Spirited Goat Cafe. While they liked the coffee business, and still roast the beans for the Spirited Goat, they never wanted to work inside all day every day. And with a cart, suddenly they had a business they could take with them to all the outdoor festivals and especially music concerts they love all summer long.
“Someone came by the other day saying, ‘you’re living the dream!’” Mindy said. “That’s how we think of it too, and it does incite that dream to be free.”
Across Corry Street, several other mobile vendors are adding color and activity to the Village BP lot. Misael Antonio Aviles operates New Orleans Grill on the north side of the property.
Aviles, who hails from Mexico and has lived in Springfield for 22 years, started vending in Yellow Springs at the street fairs, working for Louisiana BBQ. Two years ago when BP opened its lot to vendors year-round, Aviles set up a tent for the BBQ there. Then last year he and his brother brought their own New Orleans Grill to town and have become regular vendors at the local BP lot, as well as other private parking lots in Springfield. One customer, Marvin Greene, who drove from his workplace in Xenia to Yellow Springs this week specifically to get a $9 plate of bourbon chicken, pinto beans and rice (with the requisite onion, jalapeno and chili sauce toppings), is glad to have them.
“It’s very good — it’s worth the drive!” he said as he left.
The early spring has also brought Shelley Dodds out with her trailer to sell Paul’s Potatoes fresh cut French fries for the past four weekends on the other side of the gas pumps adjacent to the BP convenience store. Last Friday afternoon the trailer drew a steady stream of both locals and out-of-towners who came for the fries, cut and fried in the truck to order, as well as the Texas pork tenderloin sandwiches. Dodds also operates a series of mobile vending trucks and trailers during the region’s festival season and manages seven large festivals in the Miami Valley.
Dodds, who lives on a farm in Springfield and used to come to Yellow Springs to ride her horses, also started vending in Yellow Springs with the Street Fair, and liked the community enough to come on weekends as well. After 30 years in the corporate food service industry, she got into mobile vending because she wanted to be more independent and get outside more. Now, out with her trailers eight months of the year, her father calls the business “a hobby gone bad,” she said.
“This is more work, but it’s more fun!” she said.
Yet another vendor is hoping to open this week in the parking lot of Corner Cone. Akhilesh and Pratibha Nigam, who have operated Indian Food Corner out of the Corner Cone building for the past three winters, now plan to sell Indian food Thursday through Sunday year round from their new trailer. With the new business, Aahar India (which is Hindi for nutritious food), the couple plans to offer the same menu of traditional dishes, such as saag paneer and chicken tikka masala, with the addition of a savory pie, which turns those dishes into a finger food customers can eat on the go, Akhilesh said this week. They will also sell mango lassis and Indian groceries such as lentils, spices, naan, candles and soap.
The Nigams don’t plan to take their trailer outside of Yellow Springs, as Nigam is more interested in catering to a local clientele, he said this week. But if the venture is successful, the couple hopes to aquire more trailers to sell their food in other locations as well.
How they operate
The Village Zoning Code does not specifically regulate mobile vendors, but does allow in the Central Business District “Drive-in/drive-through/carry-out establishments, including restaurants” as a conditionally permitted use. The Village has heretofore not enforced the permitting for the vendors. But due to the recent proliferation of food carts and trailers in town, according to Village Assistant Planner Ed Amrhein, this week the Village will begin mandating that all property owners hosting vendors obtain conditional use permits for “a use we are inclined to allow but which we want to permit only on a case-by-case basis at a public hearing at which we reserve the right to apply conditions, such as parking, screening, fencing, etc.” Amrhein said. Permit applications are due to the Village by the end of April, in time for a public hearing to be scheduled in May, according to Amrhein.
Another reason for the recent enforcement action was a complaint the Village received last week about the insufficient parking space at Village BP. According to code, service stations are required to have at least six off-street parking spaces, several of which are currently being occupied by the French fry trailer at BP.
“The complaint generated a deeper look at the code and how we regulate such businesses,” Amrhein said.
All four of the mobile vendors are located on private property and pay a nominal fee to the property owners to be there. While the vendors declined to give specific information, during Street Fair, Village BP, which can fit 40 vendors on the lot, charges vendors $200 a day, the same amount the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce charges all fair vendors, according to BP co-owner Jane Nipper. The fees generally include the use of water and electric power from the brick and mortar businesses.
Some of the businesses also have informal agreements with the property owners not to compete directly with their business. Dodds, for example, doesn’t sell soda or water from the French fry cart and instead encourages her customers to purchase those items from BP. Nigam also plans to avoid selling soda, which is something Corner Cone already offers.
Because their businesses are mobile, the vendors hold a transient vendor’s license through the state and pay taxes to the state, not the Village, according to an Ohio Department of Taxation representative. Mobile vendors are required to have a health permit from the county in which they reside, and those permits require that the mobile kitchens maintain commercial kitchen standards, including sanitary stations, proper refrigeration and cooking elements, and a commissary agreement with a licensed food service operator for a permanent food storage location. The license also requires the vendors to move their operations at least once every 35–40 days. And according to Clark County Combined Health District employee Charlene Culp, the code is “very nonspecific” about what “moving” means.
Opinions about mobile sales
Because of the difference in operating standards between a brick and mortar business and a mobile one, some established business owners have concerns about their more versatile and adaptible counterparts. Mobile businesses don’t have buildings to take care of, and therefore don’t have property taxes to pay, nor insurance or group advertising costs. Their start-up costs are estimated to be about $5,000–$25,000, which is a fraction of what it costs a business in a dedicated space, according to an article about mobile vendors in the Columbus Dispatch last year. And many of the vendors neither live locally nor employ local residents.
“For me, it’s a little unfair,” Steve Current of Current Cuisine said this week. “There’s only so much food you can sell in one concentrated area, and if they’re doing it cheaper, of course it’s going to affect us because it takes away from our customer base.”
Two other local restaurant owners who wished not to be named had similar concerns about the unfair advantages that mobile vendors had over those who’ve worked diligently for many years to become established. One person said the transient vendors “make the town look trashy, gypsy-ish,” and also voiced concern that money being made locally was leaving the community.
Ye Olde Trail Tavern owner Cathy Christian understands that property owners have every right to make extra money from their property, as she has done with the farmer’s market vendors who lease space in her Kings Yard parking lot. She also knows that some vendors may start out transient and become established local businesses, as have Asanda, Jennifer’s Touch and Twisted Tines. But she also believes that even transient vendors should buy into the community by, for example, becoming members of the Chamber of Commerce to pay for the advertising they benefit from. And she also feels that the Village should establish some regulations governing mobile business activity, such as requiring permit fees, and perhaps favoring locally produced and locally sold items.
And the Village should enforce screening regulations between vendors and their neighbors, she said, citing a former grill stand located at BP right next to Bonadies Glass Studio. The generator was noisy, and the charcoal smoke wafted into the windows of the business, degrading both the windows and the air quality in the store, she said. And the stand completely blocked the view of the large window Bonadies uses to display its stained glass wares, she said.
“A little bit of rules can go a long way,” Christian said. “If you’re coming here and you’re benefitting, then you need to give back into the community.”
One restaurant owner also said that while he sometimes bristles at the thought of mobile vendors, they do add a funky, festive atmosphere and are “kind of cool for the downtown.” And they offer a place for a buyer who wouldn’t sit down for a meal anyway. Local resident Karl Colón, director of the Greene County Library, agreed. He is often called to travel between all four branches of the library system in one day, when lunch on the go is imperative.
“We are supernaturally blessed by the awesome restaurants we have in town, but for the here and now, this fills a niche,” he said this week.
And for BP, while the vendors do help her business, Nipper likes the fun energy the extra businesses bring to town. The gas station has a calendar of vendors scheduled for the lot this summer. While she doesn’t want too many crowding her lot at once, two or three at a time is a good number, she said.
“People are out there with their families and their dogs, and they’ll just wander over from the bike path, get a hotdog and a pop and walk around. It helps our business too — it’s just trying to bring more business to Yellow Springs,” she said.
Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce Director Karen Wintrow feels the mobile vendors add “something festive and out front that makes it look like there’s always something going on in town,” she said this week. But the charm is provided by the small number of vendors. “If it starts to look like Street Fair every day of the week, that might require different thinking…” said Wintrow, who is also a Village Council member. Council is currently completing a major update of the Village zoning code, and according to Amrhein, the Village plans to consider a mobile vendor policy.
In the meantime, mobile vending has become a national trend, according to articles in the Columbus Dispatch reporting on food cart cultures and conflicts in Athens and Delaware, Ohio, both of which restrict the number of vendors and their hours of operation, and Cincinnati, which in 2010 designated three city-owned locations where the vendors could operate until 3 a.m.
As for Brother Bear and Mindy, the Lot Dogs are only going to get more creative, with different toppings on different days of the week, including chili, sauerkraut, Chicago style and pulled pork. The couple was ready to try something new, and they have a good feeling about the food cart business.
“This is something the town needed,” Mindy Harney said. “It’s for pedestrians who want to be outside and walk around for lunch.”