In Whitefish, Late-Night Food Wars Come to a Head

By Beacon Staff

Less than a year after creating a temporary vendor ordinance and with two mobile food vendors operating under the law, the Whitefish City Council is considering a moratorium on the vendors until the ordinance can be tweaked, or abolished.

At a public meeting at City Hall on April 5 at 7:10 p.m., the council will vote on an urgency ordinance that would prevent the city from granting any more temporary vendor permits as officials grapple with a law that has become increasingly controversial.

The controversy stems from concerns expressed by Richard Kramer, owner of the Red Caboose in downtown Whitefish. Kramer’s restaurant served food 24 hours a day until last January and now serves until 3 a.m. on weekends.

Kramer says the late-night weekend shift is his most profitable and argues that a temporary pizza vendor, and now also a sandwich vendor, hurt his business. As a “brick-and-mortar” restaurant with significant overhead costs, as opposed to a mobile stand, Kramer says the late-night food vendors present “unfair competition.”

“They’re trying to make a buck like me,” Kramer said of the mobile vendors. “But I’ve just invested a million-and-a-half dollars to make that buck.”

But David Sheeran, owner of Second Street Pizza and proprietor of the weekend night pizza stand, said he has been compliant with all of the vendor permit’s requirements. He first acquired his permit last summer shortly after the council approved the new vendor ordinance. He paid $400 initially and has paid $30 every 60 days since to get it renewed. His most recent renewal was on March 25.

“The city licenses me to vend on the street and I’ve been compliant and I’ve been renewed four times,” Sheeran said.

Sheeran said he has invested thousands of dollars into a generator and equipment, presented the city with 400 signatures in support of his business and has received the blessing of the police and the planning department, which administers the permits. He called Kramer’s complaints a “smear campaign.”

At a meeting on March 1, the council voted 4-2 to consider the moratorium while staff makes changes to the vendor ordinance. Pointing to that vote and sentiments expressed by some councilors in the past, Sheeran isn’t optimistic about the April 5 meeting. His permit was initially approved 5-1 last summer, but three new councilors have tipped the scale, he said.

“I have a feeling they’re just going to bury us,” Sheeran said. “I don’t understand why (Kramer) carries so much weight.”

Sheeran said he sets up a pizza stand on weekend nights, from about midnight to 2 a.m. Under the ordinance he is only allowed to serve food until 2 a.m. but doesn’t have to be packed up until 3 a.m., a discrepancy that he says hurts his business because he quits serving before the bulk of his bar crowd can get to him.

His pizza stand is located on a vacant lot on the corner of Central Avenue and First Street, kitty-corner from the Red Caboose. Right across the street at 100 Central Avenue, Michael Tigue is now selling hot dogs, sandwiches, chili and other snacks. Tigue and Sheeran are the only two vendors operating.

With two mobile vendors operating within a block of his business, Kramer said his late-night business has declined significantly. Since last year, between hours cut back and employees laid off, Kramer said he has lost seven to eight employees. He attributes the loss of business to a combination of the recession and Sheeran’s pizza stand.

Kramer estimates he lost $80,000 in business last year because of Sheeran. Now, because of two vendors operating combined with the already slow shoulder season, Kramer said he’s considering closing down his restaurant until summer or at least getting rid of the late-night hours. Kramer, who is trying to sell the Red Caboose, thinks the business lost could translate to more than $200,000 in property devaluation.

In a March 16 e-mail to David Taylor, Whitefish’s planning director, Kramer said “for the better part of a year now my business and employees have been assailed upon by the city.”

“I will probably just close up till summer, lay off all 18 employees and seek other avenues to recoup my lost revenues and devaluation of the business,” Kramer said. “My employees are well aware of the situation and plan on coming to the city looking for the jobs that you took from them.”

Last January, Kramer gave up his contract with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which gave Kramer a monthly subsidy to serve food 24 hours per day. Sheeran said Kramer fails to account for this loss of business in his claims against the pizza stand. Sheeran also points out there was a late-night hot dog vendor in downtown Whitefish before he set up his pizza stand.

“If his whole business tanks because of the four hours I’m out in front each weekend,” Sheeran said, “then he should find a new business.”

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