Cafe Society

Food fight! It's Civic Center Eats versus Cherry Creek Fresh Market

Since the fleet of food trucks and gourmet mobile carts hit the streets of Denver,, there have been relatively few regulatory obstacles, and the vehicles have been proffering goods to the masses from curbs and parking lots all over town.

Now, though, there could be a roadblock in the most popular gathering places: the markets.

Since 1997, Chris and Michele Burke have worked to build the Cherry Creek Fresh Market, bringing on growers as well as food vendors to create an incubator for new, fresh food concepts. That market is a hot ticket with a lot of foot traffic, and landing a spot as a vendor is a great way to reach a large audience. There's a catch, though: All sellers must sign a non-compete agreement that prohibits them from selling at other markets within a five-mile radius.

"Vending on every street corner isn't good business; it dilutes everyone's sales," says Michele Burke. "This rule comes from our experience with years of organizing and a desire to preserve the draw of our market."

And that rule is creating a major sticking point for the Civic Center Conservancy, because the Burkes are enforcing their agreement to include the Civic Center Eats outdoor food court. So if vendors like Pinche Tacos and the Biscuit Bus want to maintain their slots in the Bed, Bath & Beyond parking lot on Saturdays and Wednesdays, they won't be able to cruise the park at Broadway and Colfax on Tuesday.

"We support the revitalization of the Civic Center Park," says Burke, "but in fairness, we can't make an exception to our rule. We have a long track record of finding positive solutions to challenges that arise. I'd rather find a proactive solution, like becoming an in-kind sponsor, something that makes everyone happy."

Lindy Eichenbaum Lent, executive director of the Civic Center Park Conservancy, isn't biting. "I'm flattered that Fresh Market wants to sponsor," she says. "But the company doesn't own the vendors at its market, so that non-compete is illegally restricting the free flow of trade. Besides, we're not a farmers' market, we're a non-profit, and we reach a different audience on a different day, so there's no way that non-compete agreement can be interpreted to restrict vendors from selling at our event."

Meanwhile, the entrepreneurs with trucks and carts are caught between a rock and a hard place as they try to grow their businesses -- and wonder why they have to choose between the two events at all. So they're asking their fans to write letters to the Burkes, so they can work together to find a suitable solution.

According to Eichenbaum Lent, vendor participation in both events could help everyone. "People who eat at one of the trucks at Civic Center Eats may go seek it out at the Cherry Creek Fresh Market on Saturday," she says. Overhearing that statement, one would-be vendor at Civic Center Eats chimes in that she's already seen that happen, adding that several people asked why she wasn't selling in Civic Center yesterday.

Still, the Burkes aren't budging. "It's not so black and white," says Michelle Burke. "Civic Center Eats is defined as a farmers' market in several places, and we shouldn't be obligated to share our vendors when we've worked hard to build our business."

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk