What’s the Dill? Boardwalk Fair Is In a Pickle

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Rockaway is in a pickle. The pickles aren’t in Rockaway. Recently, an uproar started across local social media pages when the Pickle People, the popular vendor with the biggest lines at the Rockaway boardwalk craft fairs, removed Rockaway from their schedule, and informed their fans that they were allegedly no longer welcome in a place that has hosted them for about 25 years. The uproar grew beyond the Pickle People problem when the first boardwalk craft fair on June 29, was set up in a location away from regular foot traffic, leading many to ask—what’s the dill?

Since the old Rockaway Music and Arts Festival held in Riis Park in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Pickle People, a West Hempstead-based company, has been bringing their pickles to the masses in Rockaway. The vendor was rarely seen without huge lines in front of it, as people lined up to have quarts and half gallon containers filled to the brim with their favorite pickles. The pickles are so popular that owner, Leeann Jacobian shared a story of a time at the old Riis Park festival, where an elderly woman fell while waiting in a line of about 50-people. “She injured her hip and couldn’t wait in line anymore as an ambulance came. One of the EMT’s came up to us and said that the woman refused to leave until she got her pickles,” Jacobian said. The Pickle People came through and the woman set off in the ambulance, with pickles in tow. That dedication to the Pickle People remained strong until the Riis Park festival came to an end in 2009.

 In 2013, Alan Finchley, who has organized street festivals for more than 30 years, thought it would be a good idea to give his old hometown a boost, by bringing his Nassau County Craft Show model to the struggling post-Hurricane Sandy Rockaways. After scouting several locations, he chose the boardwalk to bring attention back to the beach again. The Rockaway Beach Boardwalk Fair made its debut in the summer of 2014 and was an instant hit, especially with the Pickle People making a triumphant return to Rockaway. Each summer, for about one weekend a month, the fair brings in dozens of vendors selling everything from jewelry to clothing, to personalized and crafty gifts, service companies and more. It was limited to very few food and beverage vendors, like lemonade stands and pretzels, as to not cause conflicts with nearby concession stands and has typically been held anywhere from Beach 84th to Beach 108th Street. With local vendors having a place to sell their goods in the summer, and residents and visitors able to buy unique items in a place that’s a shopping desert, the boardwalk fairs were a success, with people regularly asking, when’s the next one?

However, this summer, changes have occurred. About a week before the June fair was set to take place, word spread that the Pickle People would not be at the Rockaway fair, with the Pickle People telling customers that they were told they were no longer allowed to participate because “the concessionaire who controls food will not allow me there any longer. They feel I am hurting their sales,” they said in a message to a customer. The assumption soon turned into a rumor that spread across social media and led some to calling for a boycott against the boardwalk food concessions. The rumor grew even more when on June 29, the first boardwalk fair of the season was held around Beach 80th Street, instead of closer to the concessions, which negatively impacted vendor sales. “As a vendor, you have to pay a fee of $90 per day for a table. I didn’t make $90 back in sales,” photographer Joe Lupo, who sells prints of his scenic beach shots said. “In year’s past, where the fair was somewhere between the performance space on Beach 94th and Rippers on Beach 86th, you couldn’t keep up with the demand, with so many people coming through.” As few customers passed through the fair on Saturday, the rumor of the move being due to complaints from the concessions spread, and anger toward the food concessions grew.

According to Maribel Araujo, the owner of Caracas, who serves at the go-to person for the Rockaway Beach Club, the group that oversees the Beach 86th, 97th and 106th concessions, the rumor was never true. “The pickle guy has been coming to that fair for years and we’ve never said anything. We have absolutely no problem with the pickle guy at any of the three concessions. No one ever said no to the pickle guy because we thought it would hurt our business. That would never happen,” Araujo said in response to the pickle vendor allegedly being told that the concessions didn’t want them there. As for the fair being moved further away from the concessions, Araujo said, “We have never been asked if we have an opinion on where the fair is located. We don’t have the power to decide where a fair goes or doesn’t go. It’s not the greatest idea to have the fair in the middle of the most congested area of Rockaway Beach, but we don’t have any kind of say in that.”

Putting the accusation to rest, the Parks Department said that their agency was the one that had the fair moved further away this year, for various reasons. “Yes, we did ask the craft fair to move to Beach 80th Street in order to make sure that the vendors and our beach concessionaires are not competing for space, reduce congestion on the boardwalk and to activate other sections of the beach,” a Parks spokesperson told The Rockaway Times. As a vendor, Lupo believes the move was well intentioned, but harmful for vendors. “The decision to relocate the fair and broaden the scope was good in theory, but it wasn’t really a good move for business. We had a long walk to the bathrooms and the foot traffic was little to none,” Lupo said.

As for the Pickle People, Parks claims, “We did not restrict the Pickle vendor! The pickle vendor is welcome to sell their prepackaged jars of pickles. However, the craft fair vendors should not be selling any prepared foods (such as unpackaged pickles, lemonade, etc).” As the Pickle People have been selling pickles out of cool barrels, with pickles packaged on site at the fairs every summer before, The RT asked for clarification, to which Parks responded, “They’ve only ever been allowed to sell prepackaged jars.” The RT pushed for further, asking if this was overlooked since it has occurred in prior years, but received no response as of press time.

Despite changes occurring that haven’t happened in year’s past, Parks’ earlier statement claimed that nothing has changed. “It was never intended or permitted as a food and beverage fair. Food and beverage vendors are subject to additional Health Codes and permitting, designed to make sure that everything people purchase and consume is safe,” the Parks spokesperson said. “Our main priority is to ensure compliance with all City/State rules so that everyone can have a safe and fun summer. We are in regular conversation with the craft market organizers about this, and none of our policies are new or have changed in the past year.”

While Parks claims nothing has changed, it seems as if more regulations are being enforced that previously weren’t. “I know Parks has been way more detailed and precise when it comes to special events because before, nobody wanted to do anything in Rockaway, and now everyone wants to do something,” Araujo said. “They’ve been going through all of their requirements and teaming up with the Department of Health, but when I asked them about what’s going on, they said ‘we haven’t changed anything, but we are enforcing all of the req uired paperwork for vendors to come to the boardwalk.’” Lupo also noticed this as a vendor. “To apply as a vendor, I had to fill out a worker’s compensation form so that if we got hurt on the boardwalk, we couldn’t blame Parks. I never had to do this before, until this year,” he said.

For Finchley, who organizes the fair, he says he noticed changes after he tried to apply for his regular permits for the event in November and requested to have the fair operate every weekend. Finchley said, “I was told that was not possible because a Request For Proposals for boardwalk vendors had gone out two years ago and Lola Star won the RFP. In the meantime, May comes around and I never got any confirmation or permit for the few dates I requested.” According to Finchley, Parks then gave him some choices, saying he could work with Lola Star under her agreement, but when the stipulations of that started to become unclear, he opted to operate under a Temporary Use Agreement, as he’s done in the past. With Finchley’s first boardwalk fair originally scheduled for May and his options still being unclear, he cancelled the May fair altogether and when June’s event approached, he decided to limit it to one day instead of two, to see how things would play out. “I had no idea what was going to happen, and I didn’t want our vendors and the public to get ambushed by what I would encounter on Saturday, so I figured I’d cancel the 30th, see what happened on Saturday, and deal with the aftermath later,” Finchley said. “Every vendor was on 81st, looking down at 86th and 96th and wondering, why aren’t we there? I said, I have no idea. I don’t know if it has something to do with whatever agreement Parks has with Lola Star or if the policy came from the concessions telling Parks what to do or if it’s just Parks telling me, or somebody else. All Parks tells me is that it’s ‘the city’ giving them instructions, and I don’t know what that means. Is it attorneys? De Blasio’s office? I don’t know, but my main concern is that we wind up with nothing in the end. Although Beach 79th to 81st was a huge challenge, it is better than nothing, but I think the best-case scenario would be for everybody to leave us where we were in the past.”

Going forward, Finchley hopes that these recent mishaps can be rectified so the craft fairs scheduled for July 20-21, August 17-18 and September 14-15 can continue without a hitch. “The path that we took to get to this point is irrelevant. All that matters is what happens from here and hopefully we can find a way to make it work for everybody. If they let us operate from Beach 82nd to Beach 85th, so we’re not in the way of the concessions, but still within 100 feet of that area where there’s a bathroom and people can see us, it will work.”

As for the Pickle People, their fate is still up in the air. While Jacobian says she would love to continue selling their pickle products at the Rockaway fair, the requirement of having to bring prepackaged jars would not be possible without compromising the quality of her product. “Imagine jars of pickles out on an 85-degree day? The liquid becomes hot and these pickles are fermented, so there’s no vinegar to stabilize them. It would ruin the product and that I just can’t do,” she said. However, she says the Rockaway love has been strong and other local businesses have offered her space to host a pickle pop-up. “Rockaway is our favorite place, so maybe that’s something I would do so we can keep coming out there,” Jacobian said.

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