Vendors' falafel stand causes a flap downtown. Some property owners want them carted away


March 18, 1992|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

Only in a town like Baltimore could a food as foreign as falafel cause such an uproar.

When Vassos Yiannouris and his wife, Maria Kaimakis, introduced the Middle Eastern chick pea ball a year ago from their sidewalk cart, they only wanted to make a living after losing jobs in car sales and financing businesses.

At first, business was slow at the Cypriana Sidewalk Gourmet at the corner of Light and Water streets. Few people had ever heard of falafel. But soon the couple's food caught the fancy of lawyers, dentists and bankers who stood in line to eat their falafel and grilled chicken in pita bread.

But their food's popularity has worn thin with a few nearby property owners and restaurateurs.

And now the line is drawn on the pavement at the corner of Light and Water streets.

You're either for the owners of the Cypriana Sidewalk Gourmet. Or you're against them.

Their foes say they have an unfair advantage over restaurants because they don't pay rent. Their fans note the couple has a license from the city to work on the corner and say they have some of the best food in town for less than $4.

While a few property owners are asking the city's zoning board to ban the couple's sidewalk cart from the corner, dozens of downtown workers and business owners have sent the zoning board petitions and letters on their behalf.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke also has taken up in the couple's defense.

"These are hard times for everybody, but Vassos and his family didn't go on welfare, they went on to falafel. There's got to be room for that kind of initiative," Mrs. Clarke said.

One of the couple's chief detractors is Robert E. Morrow, a New Yorker who owns three properties on Water Street, one of which includes the Water Street Exchange restaurant and bar. He said he has been opposed to street vendors for several years because they make the streets dirty.

But supporters of the Cypriana Sidewalk Gourmet disagree.

"They are 10 to 12 feet from my doorway. I have no complaints. Their food is outstanding," said Melvin Mazer, who owns Mazer's Harbor Jewelers at 29 Light St.

The sidewalk area is "absolutely clean. It's cleaner when they leave than when I find it when I open up in the morning."

Ms. Kaimakis thinks jealousy motivates her foes.

"I think they're greedy. The only time they cared is when they saw our line go all the way down to Water Street and that's when they started flipping out," she said.

Barbara Brandt, who represents Mr. Morrow's Kenilworth Equities, is leading the charge to oust the couple from the corner, just two blocks north of the Inner Harbor.

The two forces will square off March 31 at a City Hall zoning hearing. A zoning hearing last month before two members of the five-member board generated so much testimony that zoning board Director Gilbert V. Rubin now plans a full hearing before making a decision.

"It would be serious if the board ruled against them. They could lose their livelihood," Mr. Rubin said.

Ms. Brandt already lost one round in her fight in September before the city's Board of Licenses for Hucksters, Hawkers and Peddlers, which allowed the couple to remain on the corner.

Her request is the first time in city history that anyone has appealed a peddler's license to Baltimore's zoning board, say city officials.

Ms. Brandt has refused to comment for this story. She recently has hired former city judge and city solicitor George L. Russell Jr. to help her get rid of the sidewalk vendor. Mr. Russell said this week that he was not yet familiar enough with the facts of the case to comment.

A little more than a year ago, Mr. Yiannouris and Ms. Kaimakis received city permission to use the corner. They designed their $15,000 custom-built cart -- complete with grill and fryer -- with the approval of the city Health Department and took out a second mortgage on their Patterson Park rowhouse to pay for it.

Before then, Mr. Yiannouris had never even heard of falafel -- a treat served on the sidewalks of Israel. Mr. Yiannouris, who is from Cypress, and Ms. Kaimakis, from East Baltimore, decided to try selling food from a sidewalk stand when their income from the car business dwindled.

"We wanted to be an exclusive thing," said Mr. Yiannouris. "I didn't know what falafel was. I went to Philadelphia and to New York to see friends and they said, you have to sell falafel."

They fry the extra large balls of ground chick peas, fava beans and herbs, then serve them inside pita pockets with vegetables. They are also known for their grilled chicken and pork, served with Ms. Kaimakis' secret recipe for tarragon sauce.

Yesterday at lunchtime, they served a steady stream of regular customers, many of whom they knew by name. A few called in their orders to a portable phone on the cart. Without asking, Ms. Kaimakis knew how some of her customers preferred their lunch -- with extra hot sauce or without onions.

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