The drama started with Edwin Padilla.
Edwin was the original “hot dog guy” in Bethlehem, serving up hot dogs drowned in sauerkraut and topped with potato chips. Up until carts started popping up early in 2009, Bethlehem didn’t exactly possess vendor laws and their legality was extremely unclear. Although there were other vendors, Mr. Padilla by far received the most press and was present at Bethlehem City Council meetings.
Back then, Funhouse bar owners Chris and Tina Kowalski waged a war against the hot dog cart that made them look certifiably insane. Don’t get us wrong. We LOVE the Funhouse. It’s the best dive in the Lehigh Valley. But the Kowalskis were mainly responsible for wrangling business owners (from Billy’s Downtown Diner, Apollo Grill, Blue Sky Café, Cutters Bike Shop, Nawab, and Hotel Bethlehem) to come out and speak against the hot dog mania that was sweeping South Side Bethlehem.
Saying the business owners were pissed off because they had mortgages and loans to pay, not “$6,000 for a hot dog cart”, the spat lasted across months of council meetings. They were (justifiably) angry that the carts were parking in spaces immediately in front of their businesses, even though that was conforming with the law at that time. Kowalski claimed that the “appearance of vendor carts in the gutter depreciates the value of properties in the neighborhood.” I’d really, really love to see her research behind that statement because I sure as hell couldn’t find anything supporting it.
Further complaining about all of the expenses that come with owning a business and calling street vendors “parasites that live off the existence of others”, the Kowalskis stomped their feet and complained that while they give to the community, “the hot dog vendor is just taking”. This, despite the health inspections, taxes, business permits, and income tax Padilla had to pay.
With the widespread support of the community a Facebook group pleading to “save the hot dog man” garnered more than 3,000 likes. A councilperson went to the hot dog cart and found it exciting, declaring the idea of vending carts “healthy for the city.” The mayor himself observed that “food carts can add a lot of vibrancy and energy to street life.”
There’s also historical precedence for food carts according to some residents. Tom Morganelli recalled that there were vendors on Third Street in the 50’s. Stephen Antalics, a Bethlehem resident, stated that street vendors occupied the South Side for 75 years, and in the 30’s and 40’s sold chestnuts.
The street vendor detractors proposed ridiculous scenarios to illustrate their points: What would happen if someone fell over the cart? What would happen if someone slipped on grease and sued the vendor for a million dollars? What would happen if the vendor’s propane tank blew up? We have some questions of our own. What would happen if a bar patron spontaneously combusted and caught someone else on fire? What would happen if a car suddenly careened into the Funhouse? These, like Kowalski’s concerns, are extremely important to consider.
Kowalski also claimed that that a dessert fundraiser to benefit the community was cancelled because participants had to submit a form with a $10 fee to the city to participate. Applications had to be approved by the Chamber, zoning, health bureau, parking authority, and the police department. The merchants involved deemed the paperwork ridiculous and decided not to hold the event. So, to put this in perspective, the merchants were crying about submitting a form and $10 to hold an event. But it’s OK to push the similar and far more burdensome and extensive paperwork on the street vendors. And even better, just before spouting this off to the council she complained about putting up with hypocrisy. The Funhouse owners also said that “no merchant should feel intimidated about conducting business or their customers intimidated.” Seriously? Intimidated by a hot dog cart? Get real.
She then went on to bitch about how the Public Works Committee made comments about how new merchants are generally wealthy and instead claimed they are low-income, entry-level entrepreneurs. She then goes on to eschew the street vendors because they could “pick up and leave at any time” and merchants could not, as they are far more committed to their businesses. She was also apparently stalking the street vendors, as she went on to note that “they have their shiny pickup trucks, cars, SUVs, motorcycles, and own their own homes.” The greatest irony of all? She complained that the carts are ugly and questioned how the vending carts and machines fit in with the historic scheme. Ms. Kowalski is obviously blind because, well, have you ever seen the front of The Funhouse?
One of the most level-headed people of the whole 2009 debacle seemed to be Ellen Larmer, the director of the Community Action Development Corporation. She was someone who actually seemed to know what the hell she was talking about and had the experience to back it up. She not only noted that vendors are extremely desirable for urban development, but they enhance the eating experiences in cities across the nation and the world. Claiming existing businesses and street vendors could create a synergy by increasing foot traffic and decreasing crime, it was one of the sanest things said during the Great Hot Dog War of 2009.
To the credit of the business owners, it is completely understandable why they did not want a food vendor setting up shop right in front of their establishment, especially taking up a parking space. However, at that time, the legality of such practice was extremely vague and the city allowed it to happen, even going to such lengths as blocking off prepaid parking spots for the vendors. But once the law was enacted in December of 2009 it made clear that the council had to approve the locations of the carts and the vendors needed the permission of the property owners to vend on their sidewalk.
So, the law was passed and all was gravy, right? The hot dog guy got to vend and the Funhouse owners finally shut up about him? Not a chance. Padilla decided that the new law was too much of a hassle and shut down, leaving the vendor law unused until 2010. It was at that point that one Christopher Morales got permission from an old church to vend on their property. The council not only approved his hot dog cart, but also allowed him to serve until 2:30am Thursday through Saturday.
Then in early February 2012 problems began popping up again. Morales was confronted by the city about his vendor license renewal fee that was unpaid. He claimed he wasn’t skirting payment and that the city was giving him the runaround on to whom he should make his check out to. Considering the ordinance itself doesn’t even say, he’s got a valid point. He also asked for extended hours, allowing him to vend until the bar crowd is completely cleared out on weekdays. He also requested to be allowed to vend in front of the Tally Ho. The council denied both requests.
And then up pops Tina Kowalski again, this time claiming that she thinks street vendors operating until 3am Thursday through Saturday is wrong. She claimed “the whole evening is about the vendor” and that she “doesn’t see any compromise with the merchants.”
This shit has gone on three years too long. Kowalski is complaining about compromise, yet compromise was reached. The mean, mean hot dog men aren’t sitting directly in front of her business anymore and they’re now over-regulated by the city. If someone selling hot dogs nearly a block away from her bar is taking away her business, then the Funhouse needs to seriously rethink their business model. Morales’ hot dog cart has absolutely no impact on the Funhouse’s bottom line. Even if it did, it wouldn’t matter in the least. Did Kowalski run to council crying when Molly’s opened up across the street, bemoaning the fact that they’ll sell beer too and take away her customers? Absolutely not. Why should a hot dog guy a block over, who has all of his permits, inspections, and permissions in line, matter in the least bit to her?
Although our opinion isn’t as strong as Jon Geeting’s, the city’s regulation needs to be stepped down considerably. If a restaurant can be open 24 hours a cart should be able to as well. We don’t think that carts should be allowed to set up wherever they want to. They should be allowed to set up wherever property owners give permission. If the Tally Ho doesn’t give a shit about Morales selling hot dogs outside their door at 1am then why should council, Kowalski, or anyone else? Geeting says they’re “rent-seeking”. Considering Kowalski said herself that “vendors should have to pay $1,000 to $2,000 in monthly rent,” he’s 100% correct.
The fact that Bethlehem is still dealing with this issue is absurd. They need to lose much of the current ordinance and treat the hot dog carts just as they would any other business. Kowalski needs to get a life and either focus on fixing her bar so that they don’t lose customers to a hot dog stand or sell The Funhouse and open up a street cart. It’s 2012 people, let’s wake up and get with the program. The Lehigh Valley is evolving and we need to evolve with it, street vendors included.