Word of Mouth

Old vendors protest new rules on the 16th Street Mall

The Downtown Denver Partnership has revved up its vendor program on the 16th Street Mall, with more mobile food carts and expanded hours. But the new rules are threatening to drive some of the old carts away. "The working hours are supposed to be from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and up to seven days for new vendors coming in," says Mohammed Elaemi, who runs Shondiz, a kebab stand. In previous years, he notes, the Partnership would allow vendors to work just four days between Monday and Saturday -- and was flexible about which days they chose. "We're independent vendors who are limited in budget and resources," Elaemi points out. "Who can really do six or seven days a week as individuals? We'll wear out in a couple of months."

But the Partnership says the new hours are part of a plan its been implementing for some time. "One of the things we've been striving for for the last couple of years is to increase the quality, predictability and overall appearance and image of the vending program on the 16th Street Mall," explains John Desmond, the DDP's executive vice president of downtown environment. "What that allowed us to do was to hire an individual to manage the program, called Marketplace on the Mall. We want to run the mall not exactly like a shopping center, but with more of the professionalism that characterizes how a shopping center is run."

And that meant standardizing hours, among other things. "There were very few requirements before; we had vendors showing up three days a week for three hours a day, but they'd leased that space for the entire time," Desmond explains. "We wanted to increase the predictability so the people who live and work there would know when their favorite cart was going to be open. We looked at other programs across the country and found that they have standard hours."

Elaemi isn't worried about the standard hours so much as how long they stretch -- and how stretched they make him. "I get here before I'm supposed to be here now," he says. "I will still be working more than they want, but I can't comply with the actual hours. I don't sell anything in the last two hours, and I lose money. And Saturdays, it's a different population on the mall. I don't have that much business, and I lose the opportunity to do my accounting and bookkeeping."

But the new hours are meant to lure in different types of patrons, too, Desmond says. "The idea is not just to serve the downtown employee lunchtime crowd, but to serve the other people who frequent the mall, particularly the core blocks with visitors and pedestrian traffic," he explains. "The goal is to activate the mall -- particularly the medians of the mall -- and we have to have people there to do that. Any retail store on the mall has to be open certain hours. It can't just close up from 2 to 4 because those are the slow hours and come back later."

Elaemi is also concerned that the new rules favor bigger outfits, although that's the opposite of what the Partnership claims to want. "Restaurants on the mall have carts, too," Elaemi points out. "Under the new rules, they can keep them running because they have more staff. But that doesn't help local vendors, and that's putting corporations over the minorities, women and individuals the Partnership says they advocate for."

Desmond says that running off individuals isn't the Partnership's intent; instead, it wants to provide choices for shoppers. "We're looking at a diversity of options for people," he explains. "In the past, vendors have been very small and here for a very limited amount of time. We're not targeting corporate, national or local vendors. We want to target a bunch of different types so people have options."

Elaemi and other vendors are exploring options themselves with the Partnership, including the possibility of a time-share. "If I'm here throughout the week, another vendor can do the weekends," Elaemi suggests. "Or another vendor can come in after hours."

The Partnership is working closely with individual vendors, Desmond says, including helping them find new locations in the five blocks of the mall that don't come with the schedule requirements. "We're working in good faith with individual vendors who have not signed their leases yet," he adds.

And the rules will be re-evaluated later this year, too. "If we need to make some adjustments to it at the end of the season, we're certainly going to do that," Desmond says. In the meantime, the Partnership has added different kinds of leases -- including seasonal and short-term -- to try to alleviate concerns.

The two groups groups will have to find at least some solution quickly: Mall vendors are required to renew their leases in the next two weeks, and the new rules take effect July 1.

If they can't find common ground, Elaemi predicts that many carts -- including his own -- will shut down. "They seem to be saying 'You're welcome to be here, but you're not welcome to be here,'" he says. "This is the only operation that I have. If I had to shut down, I would lose my business, lose my job and lose my hope."

A version of this story originally appeared in Cafe Bites, our weekly newsletter devoted to Denver's food and drink scene, which arrives in e-mail boxes every Wednesday afternoon. Find out how to subscribe here.

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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