March 5, 2009
By Tim Simard
T.J. Chelak Jr. likes to call what’s happening to his hot dog stand in Maple Tree Place a “David versus Goliath” tale. Unless he can resolve a rent dispute with Maple Tree Place owner Inland Real Estate Group, Chelak could remove T.J.’s Dawg House as soon as next week.
T.J. Chelak cooks up a batch of hot dogs in October 2007. The food vendor is in a contract dispute with Maple Tree Place property owner Inland Real Estate Group, and could leave the open air mall.
Chelak said corporate greed is driving him out, with Inland asking for a considerable increase in rent — one that would be more than three times what food vendors pay on Church Street in Burlington.
“I was like, wow, after everything I’ve done for this plaza,” said Chelak, who is closed for the winter.
Last year, Chelak said he paid roughly $3,300 in rent, operating his business from April through December. In recent contract negotiations, Chelak said Inland wanted him to sign a three-year deal for $15,300, or about $5,000 a year. Inland representatives would neither confirm Chelak’s previous rent nor comment
on the negotiations.
“We’re not going to discuss (rent agreements),” Matt Tramel, media relations director for Inland, told the Observer.
Chelak said he had been in talks with Inland as recently as last week. But when negotiations broke down, Maple Tree Place Property Manager Richard Golder asked Chelak in an e-mail to remove his cart by the end of last weekend.
Chelak responded that he would do so by this upcoming weekend, and sent another e-mail Tuesday morning to Inland managers apprising them of his disappointment. At about the same time, the Observer contacted Inland for comment. Later in the day, Chelak said he had received a phone message at noon from an Inland representative with a request to reopen dialogue about a contract.
Tramel told the Observer on Tuesday morning that negotiations were back on and Chelak would not need to remove his cart just yet.
“We’re reviewing the tenant’s situation right now and exploring all options,” Tramel said. He would not comment on why his company changed its mind.
Chelak said he spoke with Golder last week to negotiate rent and Golder told him they might be able to meet somewhere in the middle — around $13,000 for three years. Chelak said that didn’t happen, with Inland sticking to it’s original offer.
“They told me I should raise my prices,” Chelak said. “But that’s not what I want to do. I’m trying to get away from corporate greed, which is exactly what’s happening to me.”
Chelak said he pays much higher rent than food and craft vendors on Church Street. According to Ron Redmond, executive director of the Church Street Marketplace, vendors pay $1,500 per year. But, Redmond said, the rent is “decidedly low” for one of Vermont’s busiest outdoor centers.
“It’s important in Burlington to keep the fees reasonable,” Redmond said, adding 12 of 20 Church Street vendors serve food.
Chelak’s longtime friend and customer Dave Marvin said he had recently heard about the Dawg House’s troubles. He said it’s another example of corporate America putting profit over people.
“As I see it, all of Tom’s rent was profit to them, costing them nothing,” Marvin said in an e-mail to the Observer. “Corporate America has lost all decency. People are just an expendable commodity. Nothing matters but profit.”
Chelak started his hot dog business in August 2007. Located between Christmas Tree Shops and Best Buy, T.J.’s Dawg House soon became a mainstay at the mall after Chelak built a cabin to protect himself from the elements. It was Chelak’s first business venture after being laid off from IBM in 2002, where he had been an electrical engineer.
T.J.’s Dawg House sells Vienna Beef hot dogs from Chicago, which Chelak said are hard to find in New England.
“The only way you can get them is through a mail order,” he said.
He said he buys the hot dogs for $6.49 per pound, and sells the quarter-pound wieners for $2.75 each, with all the fixings. Chelak also sells bratwursts, kielbasas and Italian sausage. He said his margins are low, but he wants to keep prices low for customers.
“I am treating people with respect by doing what I’m doing,” Chelak said.
Chelak said he wants to keep his business in Williston. He said he’s talked with property owner Al Senecal about moving his cart to the parking lot of the Williston Driving Range. If the next round of contract negotiations goes smoothly, Chelak said he would consider staying at Maple Tree Place, the spot where his business took off. Still, he admitted the ordeal has soured him on the location, to the point that he would consider a move regardless of what Inland proposes.
“I wanted to grow it into something more,” Chelak said. “It was going in the right direction.”