What would typically be a run-of-the-mill update from a vendor for a farmers market turned into a social media frenzy on Sunday in Point Ruston.
The reason seems to be a complicated triangle consisting of a developer, a restaurant inside a marketplace with dozens of small businesses operating daily, and a weekly event.
Tacoma Farmers Market posted on its Facebook and Instagram pages that two vendors could not attend that day’s market in the Point Ruston development’s Grand Plaza.
The market received a “directive” to “stop selling all ‘Mexican-style food'” at its Sunday event, it said, affecting two scheduled vendors: El Guero PNW, a new local pop-up , and Burrito Boy, a truck operated by the now-closed Mexican restaurant Josefina’s in Tacoma’s south neighborhood. The directive came from the Point Ruston Owners Association, a nonprofit linked to Point Ruston developer Loren Cohen, according to state records.
“We have responded to the PROA and are trying to negotiate a solution. TFM did not participate in this decision and directive, but must comply with it while trying to reach a mutual agreement with PROA,” the social media posts read. “We are deeply saddened by this abrupt news and apologize to the vendors and small business owners affected as well as our market community who seek out their food offerings at our Sunday Market in Point Ruston. We do our best to represent and advocate for the small business owners and sellers we host in our marketplace! »
The posts received more than 1,000 comments and were shared more than 1,200 times on Monday afternoon.
El Guero shared the news on his social media on Saturday evening, writing that “due to unforeseen circumstances” they would not be selling at the farmer’s market the following day. “We just learned tonight that there was a complaint about the sale of Mexican food at the market,” owner Jesus Rodriguez said, adding that he was disappointed and hoped it would be temporary.
The post has since attracted 1,300 likes and nearly 200 comments.
The News Tribune contacted Rodriguez’s mother by phone Monday, and through an interpreter she said she was not ready to speak further on the subject.
Social media erupted with calls for racism, with many believing Mexican food was singled out. Others noted that there may be a legal problem at hand, in that the only Mexican-only restaurant with a permanent presence in this area, Taco Street, had a non-competition clause in its contract. .
Point Ruston, on its Twitter and Facebook pages, responded with a statement on social media at 8:33 p.m. Sunday, saying it had “certain exclusive contracts in place to help support our physical sellers – including contractual exclusivity for Mexican food”. . We plan to honor this exclusivity clause and will continue to work to ensure that opportunities for small businesses of all backgrounds have a place at the water’s edge.
He added that he had a “productive five-year relationship” with the Farmers’ Market and that “today’s misunderstanding…is not something we take lightly.”
Taco Street co-owner Elonka Perez did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Monday afternoon. A manager who answered the phone at the Waterfront Market restaurant directed The News Tribune to a contact form on the website.
Point Ruston developer Loren Cohen did not return a phone call from The News Tribune. His voicemail connected to his work line was full on Monday.
On Point Ruston’s Facebook post, Cohen responded directly to commenters, confirming that Taco Street had a contract “granting them the exclusive right to provide Mexican-style cuisine as the primary genre of food in Point Ruston.” Other vendors may “have tacos, etc. complementary to their primary genre (such as fish tacos at Wildfin) – but a taco stand or burrito stand that is exclusively Mexican-style food is in violation of this Exclusivity clause”.
The goal, he said, is to “support physical and family-run stores and restaurants that have invested in our development.”
He lamented miscommunication of these details, for which “we will certainly assume and make amends”, adding: “But accusations of racism, bias or other bad intentions are completely unfounded and the absolute antithesis of what we represent as a company and a family.”
Point Ruston vs. Waterfront Market?
The situation is clouded by a series of legal battles between Cohen and his company MC Construction, and another entity, Serpanok Construction.
In 2020, a judge ordered the auction of the Point Ruston parking lot after Serpanok sued for nonpayment. Last year, an arbitrator ruled in Serpanok’s favor, calling on Cohen and company to pay $11.5 million – which was owed plus interest.
It was after this time, in June 2021, that the Point Ruston Public Market changed hands. Now the parking lot and the Waterfront Market, the new name of the outdoor market, are owned and operated by Serpanok.
Paul Kunitsa, managing director of the Waterfront Market, said Monday morning they were caught off guard by the surge between Tacoma Farmers Market and Point Ruston.
“Quite frankly, we had nothing to do with it. We don’t work with them,” he said, referring to Point Ruston. “We have no influence over them. We didn’t ask for anything. When all of this came out, it was out of the blue.
When asked for details on the transition period between ownership last summer – and specifically the difference between the leases with the original entity and the new entity – he replied that he does not didn’t know without looking at the paperwork.
On a daily basis, he pointed out, the Waterfront Market does not communicate with Point Ruston.
Complicating matters is the fact that Tacoma Farmers Market was originally parked at its current location in Grand Plaza, but in 2020 and 2021 was temporarily housed in the Waterfront Market parking lot.
Jack + Adeline, a carpentry shop and bakery, has been a seller since the market opened at 5101 Yacht Club Road two years ago. Co-owner Leanne Franetovich tried to dispel misinformation that was spreading like wildfire on social media.
She previously told The News Tribune on Monday that leases with the public market at the time were pretty ‘boilerplate’, but she noted there could be differences from ‘under construction’ anchor tenants. , which include Owens Meats, Only Oatmeal Cookies and Taco Street. One of these tenants, Dancing Goats Coffee Bar, pulled out of the project in December 2021.
Franetovich said they used to have exclusivity clauses for companies in today’s market. Another seller couldn’t come in and sell cutting boards or reclaimed wood furniture, say, the core of Jack + Adeline’s housewares business. But things changed when Serpanok took over.
To his knowledge, there are no exclusivity agreements in the market, and since he is no longer affiliated with Point Ruston, this notion is moot.
It’s a unique situation, however, in that there are dozens of small businesses operating under one roof. Every day, the space also welcomes temporary vendors.
“We work as hard as we can, doing everything we can to support and build community here in Ruston, with small businesses and customers and everyone,” Kunitsa said. “We want to be a neighborhood gathering place.
What happens next?
On Sunday, El Guero – which debuted in May, serving at the Puyallup Night Market and Puyallup Farmer’s Market – posted again, thanking everyone who messaged them throughout the day.
They kindly declined offers of monetary donations and instead urged people to contact PROA and “let them know our frustration during this difficult time”. They said they were waiting for more information and asked their followers to support other small businesses at the Tacoma Farmers Market in Grand Plaza.
One seller, Komadre Kombucha, said on Instagram after the market closed at 4 p.m. that it had sold out.
“You really turned out to support the locals,” owner Julie Davidson, who is also Latina, wrote on Instagram. “We especially appreciate your words of support regarding our colegas and amigos who have been impacted by a change in food supplier policy. Thank you Tacoma Farmers Market for maintaining fairness and diversity of representation; we stand with you in your efforts to right this wrong.
Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Tacoma Farmers Market executive director Britt McGrath said she was actively working with PROA. At the moment, she couldn’t comment further.
This story was originally published July 25, 2022 3:20 p.m.