Wub misses Cedar Street. Cedar Street misses Wub’s grub.
Thanks to a paperwork snag in the city’s new mobile-food system, the two remain apart, at least for now.
Wub — Wubneh Tessema — opened an Ethiopian restaurant called Lalibela on Temple Street in 1999. He came to the U.S. from Gondar, Ethiopia, and has forged an immigrant success story. People love the restaurant. He added a food cart in the busy Cedar Street/Yale medical district in 2000. People loved that, too, the spicy mixes of lentils, split peas, collards, or beef and chicken, over rice and with spongy Ethiopian sourdough injera. Both operations thrived. He then added two carts tothe food vendors outside the “Yale Whale” skating rink on Sachem Street. He and his wife have a son studying at Harvard and two daughters at a private middle and high school.
Though they receive scholarships for their kids’ tuitions, they still have bills to pay — and that has grown harder since last summer, Tessema said.
The city instituted a new system on July 1 for regulating the booming food cart trade, including clear rules for who gets to set up where, and fees to support safety and environmental initiatives. The city agreed to grandfather in longtime cart operators like Tessema before opening up remaining slots to a lottery.
Tessema and his wife made sure all their licenses and paperwork were in order leading up to the deadline to be grandfathered in. But they made an oversight: They accidentally listed all three of their licensed cart employees as working on Sachem Street, rather than listing one of them on Cedar Street.
By the time of the lottery, their bid for being grandfathered in was rejected because their Cedar Street permit had lapsed, according to Steve Fontana, the deputy director who oversees the program in the city’s economic development office. “Unfortunately they did not complete their paperwork on time,” he said.
Fontana said he agreed to put Lalibela on a waiting list for the next open spaces on Cedar Street. But that’s a lucrative spot. Spaces haven’t opened, and the Tessemas aren’t at the top of the list, Fontana said.
The city received nearly 160 applications for the lottery of 91 spaces available in the four special districts created last summer. Twenty-four operators were grandfathered.
The one block of Cedar Street, between Yale-New Haven Hospital and Yale School of Medicine, currently has 30 authorized food trucks and carts, according to the city.
Wubneh Tessema estimated that the loss of the Cedar Street spot is costing him $30,000 in lost revenue. He argued that he built up a loyal clientele in the area and deserved not to be booted over an honest paperwork error. He also noted that the city hadn’t noticed the error in the months leading up to the summer boot. “Why didn’t they check before?” he asked.
He also argued that African food belongs in the mix on Cedar Street, which has numerous varieties of Asian food as well as Middle Eastern and Mexican fare.
“Nothing African. Nothing black,” Tessema said. “People should have a choice.”
City Building Official Jim Turcio gave Tessema a spot for free for three months in front of City Hall to test it out. Tessema said he didn’t make any money there. He’d like to return to Cedar Street. For now, the cart is squeezed in an alley behind his restaurant.
Turcio said he’s working on creating three new mobile-food spaces on Cedar. “We’ll get something worked out” within a few months, he predicted. “I found some room. We’re going to work with everybody. We have to do some work to make it legal.”
Turcio said Tessema is in fact high enough on the waiting list to obtain one of the upcoming spots.
Meanwhile his old customers on Cedar Street haven’t forgotten him.
“I loved that cart!” exclaimed Yale lab worker Alan Leung said as he waited in line the other day for a Chinese lunch. “That’s actually my favorite one. It’s health food.”
“Oh my God! I loved that cart!” echoed Maya Geradi, who was lined up with fellow Wilbur Cross High School student Sophie Edelstein at Taste of Thai, one of two Thai carts operating on the block. Geradi grabs lunch on Cedar Street because she has an internship in a nearby lab. She used to patronize the Lalibela cart at least once a week she said.
“Please,” she said. “Bring it back.”