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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Big Hot Dog: Policies Intended to Increase Equity Among Street Food Vendors Bedeviled by Classic Cleveland Mismanagement

Posted By on Wed, Sep 23, 2020 at 10:59 AM

click to enlarge TYLER GROSS
  • Tyler Gross
Like much of the legislation Cleveland City Council greenlights, the June 17 bill came and went without comment. It was passed unanimously, perfunctorily, just one item on a laundry list of others that afternoon on Zoom. It had been referred to council by MOCAP, the Mayor’s Office of Capital Projects, and had been satisfactorily explained at a prior committee hearing. It was small-potatoes, routine stuff.

So routine, in fact, that in the ensuing weeks, several councilpeople weren’t aware what exactly the legislation contained, or indeed, that they’d passed it at all. It had to do with rules governing temporary sidewalk occupancy permits downtown, though. Right? The $200 annual permits? The hot dog vendor licenses?



Correct.

Council didn’t realize it at the time – they were just moving along legislation at the administration’s behest – but the two significant changes which the legislation set in motion took current street vendors off guard. A few were as steamed as their Polish Boys.

The first change was that in 2020, the 40-odd locations where carts are permitted in the central business district would be awarded based on a new annual lottery system. Applicants were scheduled to be selected at random in late July and then would be obliged to set up their operations wherever they were put. Prime locations, like those on E. 9th Street corners where, at least in the past, foot traffic for Indians and Browns games, plus a reliable stream of weekday lunchers, meant steady and sometimes booming business, hung in the balance.

The other big change was that individual applicants would be limited to five locations. If all the available locations were not assigned in the first round of the lottery, or if an applicant chose not to accept one or more of their spots, those would be put back into the system and successive drawings would be held each month. (In the current system, when a location becomes available, it’s supposed to go to the next name on a waiting list. But the existence of and adherence to this list has been questioned by vendors.)

On July 7, permit applicants were invited to Public Auditorium for a meeting to “introduce and discuss” the new process. But it ended abruptly when one owner of multiple locations, Jack Hoaui, began to introduce and discuss items not, strictly speaking, on the agenda.

An estimated six total vendors attended the meeting. And those with the most permits promptly lawyered up. They contacted reporter Ed Gallek and secured a favorable story on Fox 8, which quoted two of them saying the new rules would put them out of business. The lottery system was characterized as a seizure of choice corners at which individual operators had worked hard for decades, cultivating relationships with regular customers and building specific brands. The origin of the legislation was shrouded in mystery.

“One city hall source told us the change in the process had been made so that the best spots downtown don’t stay controlled by the same people,” the Fox 8 story concluded, after four councilpeople admitted they didn’t know anything about it and the Jackson administration provided no response. “But good luck selling that to the vendors who’ve made a hard living in those spots.”

Councilman Tony Brancatelli got the message. On Sep. 1, the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee, which he chairs, voted 5-2 to repeal the legislation. Ward 6’s Blaine Griffin and Ward 5’s Phyllis Cleveland dissented without comment. The majority opinion held that the intent of the initial legislation might have been good – broadly speaking: to increase access and opportunity for potential new operators, including vendors of color — but it was probably prudent to go back to the drawing board.

“To me this was a good government thing,” said Councilman Kerry McCormack, whose downtown Ward 3 includes most of the central business district’s permits. “But to be clear, this came from the administration, not council. Initially, I thought it was a good idea. It makes sense to open up the process to those who might not have had access in the past. We should be encouraging a diverse background of vendors. But the administration was not ready to set up this system, and apparently, they didn’t communicate their plans with existing vendors. Because of that breakdown, people freaked out.”

Plus, it’s a pandemic, and it occurred to everyone that it might be better to institute a reconfigured policy next year. This year’s permit fees were waived. But at least some of the vendors who continue to operate sporadically downtown are doing so without permits anyway, due to delays (or indifference) at the division of licensing and assessments and the office of Capital Projects. For months, vendors had shut down their operations entirely as downtown Cleveland went full Brigadoon.

Even now, if you were to crisscross downtown by bicycle, you’d only encounter a handful of hot dog carts that are up and running daily.

George Tsambounieris’ is one of them. He’s a member of the “big three” operators downtown and was quoted in Ed Gallek’s story, which, plase rest assured, he had queued up on his phone when Scene chatted with him last week. He operates the popular cart on the corner of E. 9th and Prospect, right outside the Cuyahoga County headquarters and can be heard from time to time shouting “Who’s Next” to no one particular in his Greek accent, squirting oil on his grilling veggies and sausages.

Along with the “Lucky Dogs” brand (operated by Jack Hoaui), and the John’s Hot Dogs brand, Tsambounieris would stand to lose locations if the city’s new process were put into effect.

He told Scene business has been rough. He didn’t even bother coming downtown for four months after Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-home order and said he lost thousands of dollars waiting it out. Now, he’s back most every day, but only operates his flagship location on E. 9th Street, where he estimated sales are down 70 percent. The recent actions of City Hall were so upsetting to him, he said, because the city never gave him a reason for the proposed changes.

“You report for Scene, right?” He asked. “Imagine if the city said, all of a sudden, there’s a lottery and now you can’t work for Scene. You have to go be a reporter for [Fox 8]. How would you like that? There are vendors who’ve been down here 30-40 years. They’ve built up their careers since the ’70s at their corners.”

Jack Hoaui, who’s been acquiring locations for a decade with his eye always on expansion, described himself as a relative newcomer on the scene. In a recent phone conversation, he was a little clearer-eyed on the reasons for the city’s legislation.

“Honestly, it’s because they think I have too many spots,” he said.

Hoaui was diplomatic in describing instances of frustrating back-and-forths and legal disputes with various city departments in recent years. Among them: the city changed his permit a few years back so that he wasn’t allowed to operate during Walnut Wednesdays, arguing that it was for “food trucks,” not carts like his. He said he’s been told that his 16 locations in the central business district, the most of any single operator, is akin to a “monopoly.”

“People keep using that word, ‘monopoly,’” he said, “But that’s not what I have. I’m trying to run a business, and the only reason I have these spots is because nobody wanted them six, eight years ago when downtown sucked. Now the city wants them back, and I refuse to give them up.”

Hoaui said he’s tried to work with the city and that he’d even be willing to negotiate locations – “I’ve said, I’ll give you three spots back for one decent spot,” – but being reduced to only five locations would ruin the business model that he’s built up for the past decade. He’s already had to sell a number of his carts and other equipment to compensate for losses during the pandemic.

He also surmised that a lottery system might seem equitable in theory, but it didn’t account for the range of operators downtown. It wouldn’t just be the multiple-permit holders who could get screwed, he said.

It’s a rare day when Hoaui staffs all of his permitted locations at once – “The Cavs Championship parade,” he said, citing one obvious example. For him and others with more than five locations, you have to operate them strategically.

“I might have five that I do only for Browns games,” he said. “But they wouldn’t make sense on most any other day. I do a different five for Indians games. If there’s a concert at Public Hall I do different locations than on a regular Saturday. There are just different dynamics to it, and the city hasn’t taken that into account.”

That approach has been criticized by some at City Hall, and by those who covet what are thought to be prime corners, because it’s a tactic seen as “hoarding,” crowding out potential competition. But according to Hoaui, some of the locations are event specific and only work as part of a larger approach.

For the single corner operators, the six remaining old-school hot-dog-and-a-coke vendors who have no ambition beyond slinging delicious hot lunch options at the one location they’ve cultivated for years, a relocation to an event-specific hot spot might be far less appealing.

“How many Browns games are there even going to be this year?” George Tsambounieris asked rhetorically, on the same topic. “And how many fans?”

Alternately, you could get exiled to E. 33rd and Euclid, the location outside Bryant & Stratton College, which is now closed, where Hoaui said a vendor would be lucky to net $20 per day.

“Say you’re trying to break into this business, and you invest in a cart,” he said. “You pay your commissary rent and your licensing fees, just so you can apply for that lottery spot, and then you get a spot that sucks. Well, suddenly you’re $10,000 in and it’s going to cost you more to license your cart for a year than you’ll be able to make in a year. But just say that you do. Say that you invest into making it a good spot, and you build up business. Well, the next year you’ve got to put it back into the freaking lottery. The whole thing’s ass-backwards.”

City Council, at any rate, seems prepared to work toward crafting a policy that’s more acceptable to everyone.

“I think this was a wake-up call,” said Blaine Griffin, one of the two dissenters earlier this month. “I know the youngins on council are very conscious of equity and making sure that’s weighed in every conversation, but I think this just caught them off guard. Even these little bills actually do affect somebody.”

Griffin believes that council should have tabled the bill before passage and had a more rigorous conversation about its implications.

“Quite frankly, I think we need to do that more often,” he said. “I know we make all our decisions in public, but we need to be having conversations among ourselves to make sure we all understand the bills before us and what it is we’re trying to accomplish.”

One of the reasons Griffin voted against the repeal Sept. 1 was on principle. “I don’t think it’s good practice to repeal a piece of legislation on the fly,” he said. “Every member of council voted for this [in June]. To just repeal it and say we want a do-over, I don’t think that’s good legislative practice.”

But he also said that he strongly believed government should not be in the business of giving one business access to a public right of way for life.

“It’s not the government's job to pick winners and losers, whether it’s a hot dog stand or a large corporation,” he said. “We need a fair and equitable way to circulate those permits. And if we’re helping anyone in the private sector operate a monopoly, that’s something I’m firmly against.”

Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland agreed. She said she felt the current system, without changes, gave certain operators monopolies on prime corners.

“It just doesn’t sit well with me,” she said, “that some operators get a lock for life while others can’t break in. But I do understand that there needs to be some continuity, and someone should not have to guess from year to year where they’re going to set up, whether they’re going to have any stability.”

Cleveland said there were obvious issues with the initial legislation, but that the repeal came up for a vote without discussion. “No one talked to me ahead of time about it,” she said, “and without additional context I felt I had to vote no.”

As council works to craft a new policy, vendors say they want to be included in the process, so that they can provide feedback on the way they operate their businesses and offer suggestions for innovative ways to distribute permits. One outside observer who attended the July 7 MOCAP meeting said that one option might be to allow the top five permit holders to each pick one or two locations to keep each year and put the others in a lottery system. A “draft,” instead of a lottery, was also discussed for the remaining sites. Another option, would be to increase the total number of permits in the central business district, seeing as many of them aren’t operated daily.

“Whatever we do,” said Councilman McCormack, “we need to make sure that we honor our legacy vendors, but also to create a process that’s as inclusive as possible.”

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