Caracas Rockaway in 2020. (Photo: Daniel Maurer)

Caracas Arepa Bar and Rippers are aiming to return to the Rockaway Beach boardwalk for an 11th summer, even as controversy lingers over the New York City Parks Department’s decision to turn Rockaway’s boardwalk concessions over to a new operator. 

“We are in negotiations with them to become a tenant,” said Maribel Araujo, owner of Caracas, revealing that discussions with the new operator, Rockaway Beach Bazaar LLC, have been progressing. 

Under the potential new agreement, the Venezuelan food stand and burger joint would act as independent vendors under the Bazaar’s license agreement. The negotiations have made progress on sticking points such as alcohol revenue and rent, Araujo said.

The controversy over the Rockaway concessions started in January, after the Parks Department announced that it was switching operators from Rockaway Beach Club — which includes Caracas Rockaway, Rippers, and Low Tide Bar — to the Bazaar, which oversees the concessions at Jacob Riis Park near Fort Tilden beach. Rockaway Beach Club has served the boardwalk community since 2011, but with the end of its contract coming up, the Parks Department was open to accepting new proposals from new operators.

Spurred by an online campaign, SaveRockaway.com, supporters of Rockaway Beach Club voiced dismay over the decision at a public hearing in January, and the issue resurfaced earlier this month during a meeting of Community Board 14’s Parks and Public Safety committee.

At the most recent meeting, Noreen Ellis, a community board member, raised concerns about the switch in concessionaires and called for increased transparency as to how the decision was made despite “so much outreach and support for the current concessionaires.” She described Rockaway as a “community that is in turmoil because half the things we’re promised don’t happen,” and said the Parks Department was “throwing a curveball into new concessionaires that may not provide the services that have been to community members, and the support.”

Alexander Han, a Parks Department representative from the revenue division, responded to Ellis with an outline of the criteria used to rate proposals from potential operators: operating experience, planned operations, proposed capital improvements, investments, designs, key offer, and financial capability. Han explained that community support factors into the category of operating experience, and that while there was wide support for Rockaway Beach Club, that only contributed to one criteria of several. 

“No single piece of the five criteria, just by winning that one only, is going to determine who wins and who loses,” Han said. “We don’t have the ability to award lifetime concession agreements. And when a concession is expiring we are required by law to open up a competitive process that allows anyone to propose on it.”

Rockaway Beach Bazaar reportedly offered the Parks Department $300,000 during the first year of its lease — a figure that was nearly triple what Rockaway Beach Club paid and that the past operators said was not in tune with their sales history — and proposed to have complete control over alcohol revenue. 

Han assured community members that they were working with the Bazaar to retain as many prior vendors as possible, to maintain high quality concessions, and, potentially, to provide a year-round location and more locations in general — changes that would provide more employment and capital improvement opportunities to the area. 

But Ellis remained unconvinced. She referred back to a zone, from 114th to 117th Streets, in which previous concessionaires had agreed not to operate in order for Rockaway’s “commercial corridor” to thrive during the summer season. She asked for a similar level of respect from the new operators in which any new location request would be presented to the community board and would not be a decision made solely by the parks department. This comment sparked support in the Zoom chat from another community member.

The conversation regarding concessions stalled with Han asking locals to keep an open mind and give the Bazaar the same chance to create an impact that Rockaway Beach Club had when they were “new blood” in 2011. A remark made by Ellis earlier on in the meeting, however, indicates that the conversation may continue in meetings to come.

“We came out, voiced our concerns and everything, and I feel like it fell on deaf ears,” Ellis said. “So I want that on the record. That we are still thoroughly disgusted with the decision.”

Araujos believes Caracas has earned another summer on the boardwalk. “We feel that we have been a good community business that has shown and proven throughout the years that we want to do honest, fair, inclusive, diverse business in the community,” she told Bedford + Bowery. “And we’re just hoping that we can stay and we can make it work with the current contract.”  

Once the city agrees on a contract with a new vendor, it is sent to the comptroller’s office to be registered. Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office indicated it had returned the contract to the Parks Department because it “failed to provide sufficient details about capital improvements, costs, timeline, and other concerns,” according to a statement provided to Bedford + Bowery. The statement further explained that the contract was being returned in order to give Parks “more time to address the issues our office has raised.”

Belvy Klein, a co-founder of the Bazaar, says we can expect an updated statement about this summer’s concessions very soon. Until then, we must all, as Klein says in our email exchange, “sit tight.”