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Christopher Hoffman couldn't believe his good fortune. The 30-year-old assistant manager of the Pickle Barrel restaurant in the Metropolitan Justice Building had always wanted to open his own establishment, but he knew he'd probably never be able to save enough money for such an investment. Then, while traveling through Germany and France on vacation last March, he saw several people cooking gourmet crepes on round griddles atop vending carts. Hoffman knew vending carts were common in downtown Miami and figured that any alternative to the ever-present hot dog was bound to draw a crowd. He was right.
After quitting his job and using $10,000 in savings to buy materials, Hoffman built a customized cart and late last summer he rolled it out to the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and SE Second Street, outside One Bayfront Plaza. Hoffman's culinary creations caught on fast; before long his crepes, filled with everything from turkey, ham, and cheese to strawberries, were ringing up gross revenues of between $250 and $300 a day -- almost double what typical hot dog vendors make.
Though it seemed almost too good to be true, Hoffman was sure his new business was secure. Not only had he obtained all the necessary vending permits from the City of Miami and Dade County, he also had chosen an official vending spot marked on a map prepared by the Downtown Development Authority. The map, which depicts exactly 83 locations where vendors may operate, is included in the "Street Vendors Handbook," a bilingual guide to setting up a cart downtown. According to the Miami city ordinance that governs street vending, the first person to grab a designated spot on any given morning is entitled to it for the remainder of the day. Because Hoffman habitually arrived early, at about 8:00 a.m., he had no problem securing spot number five each weekday during the fall.
Business was so lucrative, in fact, he was able to persuade an investor to provide another $20,000 to buy two more crepe carts. Hiring two employees, Hoffman placed the new carts at other designated spots downtown, dubbed the venture "The Crepe Maker," and printed up business cards and flyers.
And then, as it so often does in life, chaos crept up on the crepemaker.
It was 11:30 a.m. on Friday, December 10. Hoffman was cooking at one of his new carts when his beeper announced an urgent call from the employee working the cart outside One Bayfront Plaza, Hoffman's busy flagship location. When reached by phone, the worried employee announced that a police officer had just told him he would have to vacate the premises. The worker had asked why and was told that complaints had been lodged regarding the dirty sidewalk around the crepe cart.
Hoffman refused to panic. Instead, he says, he and the employee immediately set about picking up the discarded napkins and other litter in the vicinity of the cart, then used a strong cleanser to scrub down the sidewalk within a radius of about ten feet. "I didn't want to take any chances," Hoffman explains. "That spot was too valuable."
The next Monday Hoffman himself worked the newly spiffy Bayfront spot. The police officer showed up again, this time accompanied by another cop and by David Hernandez, an engineer from the city's Department of Public Works who acts as that agency's liaison to street vendors. "I told them that I was willing to scrub the spot every day and pick up paper, even the stuff that wasn't from my customers," Hoffman recalls. "Hernandez replied that it wasn't really an issue of me cleaning or not. He wouldn't give me any explanation, except to say that his superiors at Public Works had decided to eliminate the spot. And that the decision was final."
Hernandez confirms the ruling, which was made by his boss, Wally Lee, director of Public Works for the City of Miami, after the department received a written complaint about the cràpe cart. The letter, dated November 29, was signed by Urana D. Gray, administrative vice president of the Northwestern Capital Corporation, which owns and administrates all eighteen stories of One Bayfront Plaza. In her letter, Gray asserted that the cràpe cart and its customers were soiling a sidewalk that the corporation had just spent more than $263,000 to widen and decorate with new tiles. (The work was finished in February 1991, as part of Brazilian architect Roberto Burle-Marx's design project, funded with public and private funds, to improve sidewalks along Biscayne Boulevard from the Miami River north to Eighteenth Street.)
Gray indicated she was dismayed by the city's decision to allow a vendor to "create an instant slum" and nullify the "incredible effort and financial commitment" of the Northwestern Capital Corporation, owned by Wayne R. Hollo. "The area is filthy due to food being ground into the beautiful design, papers being strewn by the customers into the gutter and on the sidewalk, as well as the odors of cooking on a hot day causing nausea to many of the building's tenants," she wrote.
Gray says many of her tenants had complained to her about the crepemaker. "Almost every office in this building is leased," she asserts, "and I feel it is incumbent upon us to make our tenants happy. They don't need to be confronted with garbage and filth." She was pleased, she says, with the City of Miami's quick response: Just a few weeks after she mailed the letter, she received a call from Wally Lee and a note from Miami Commissioner Willy Gort, both of whom promised to do everything in their power to remedy the unfortunate situation. Soon after, Hernandez ordered Hoffman to leave, and a squad of city workers used pressurized water to blast the offending slime from the sidewalk. "The next thing I notice is that the place is spotless!" Gray recounts. "That's the way it should be outside a very expensive downtown building."
Lee, who has the authority to determine vending locations, did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story.
For his part, Christopher Hoffman disputes most of Gray's claims. Sure, he admits, the sidewalk was dirty, but much of the litter was left by pedestrians who didn't stop at his cart. Further, he maintains, a nearby storm drain often clogged when it rained, flooding the sidewalk and depositing dirt and oil from the street. Finally, according to Hoffman, food droppings were never a problem. "We just use a little batter to make the crepes and whatever spills we immediately clean up," he says. And to his knowledge, the scent of batter on the griddle certainly never made anyone sick. "I've never heard anybody complain. Those who say anything say the crepes smell delicious."
Hoffman doubts that the spot is much cleaner in his absence. "I ask myself who'll clean it as often as I would have," says the crepemaker, standing on West Flagler Street at the southeast corner of the Dade County courthouse, the new home of the cart that was banned on Biscayne. Indeed, a cursory comparison of the abandoned spot and the new one reveals that they look much the same -- two stretches of scuffed sidewalk with a small quantity of typical urban litter scattered here and there. If anything, Hoffman's current location looks slightly cleaner.
With two gloved hands, Hoffman folds a crepe, nearly translucent in the morning sun, around a slice of turkey sprinkled with cheddar cheese. He wraps it first in aluminum foil and then in a napkin, and hands it to one of three customers waiting in line. "The holidays were slow but now things have picked up again," he remarks, his curly red hair peeking out from under a white chef's hat. These days each cart is grossing about $200 a day, five days a week. Many of his old customers, some of whom work in One Bayfront Plaza, still make the occasional walk to the courthouse to buy a crepe, Hoffman reports.
Urana Gray doesn't dispute the popularity of the crepeman's creations among her building's tenants. "I don't know if every employee of every tenant agreed with me," she says. "I did not go around knocking on doors taking votes. I simply did what I had to do to preserve the beauty and integrity of this building." Did she ever personally sample a crepe? "I don't eat anything for lunch except a fruit or vegetable salad," she replies.