Travelers on the ferries to the San Juan Islands watching cars and people offload onto Lopez Island might wonder at the scene. A ticket office and portable toilets — that’s it? No nearby restaurants or markets like at the San Juan and Orcas docks? Even sparsely populated Shaw Island has a store near its dock. Doesn’t Lopez boast a population of about 2,800, swelling toward twice that in summer? What do all those folks do while waiting? Where do they even wait?
And what if they forgot to pack snacks?
Leaving Lopez by ferry is first come, first served — reservations off the island have never been available. The line of cars heading back to Anacortes can snake over a mile from the dock in high season. Local folks usually hang out in line, chatting with friends. Visitors might walk down toward the dock to count the number of cars ahead, or use the restrooms — or rather, portable toilets.
But local or visitor, a traveler might want to buy a drink or a snack while waiting … possibly as long as eight hours when traffic is heavy and ferries are delayed or runs cancelled. (See ‘Where’s the ferry?’ islanders ask as crew shortages stymie scheduled sailings,’ Salish Current, Oct. 20, 2021) There’s a vending machine, but it’s quickly emptied during the peak season. No drinks, no snacks. No luck.
Why is the so-called Friendly Isle so inhospitable at the ferry landing, and can’t someone fix that? It wasn’t always.
The solution is, well, complicated.
Pies! and burgers! … no more
Shelley Clark, Lopez ferry landing contract agent, has worked there 35 years. Clark’s reminiscences of food purveyors over the years are nostalgic but matter-of-fact.
“You used to come down, have lunch, then see your guests off. Now you have to just say your goodbyes at home and drop people off,” she said. “It’s especially hard on old-timers who know how it used to be, who know this isn’t who we are.”
Many “old-timers” share fond memories of the Upright Head Restaurant (once perched where bicycles are now staged) — especially its pies. Angie Clothier, who bought the restaurant in 1969 with then-husband Don Poole, used to make those pies herself. “Fifteen a day on weekdays and usually 22 on Sundays, as well as running the ferry landing,” remembered Clothier. “We made the best hamburgers I still have ever tasted.”
After the Pooles sold the building in 1972, its use changed, including briefly serving as a grocery store, but by the end of the decade it was torn down. Food came to the ferry terminal over the years at smaller eateries further up the hill: Fogged Inn, Crusty Crab and finally Ye Scurvy Dogs, which closed in 2013.
Problems with elusive solutions
Clark cited several problems contributing to the current restaurant dearth.
Poor winter business has discouraged most entrepreneurs — not to mention lack of plumbing that requires all water to be brought in.
But these days, Clark said the problem is simply too many people for the available space. “Scurvy Dogs would attract customers at all times of day,” Clark said. “They’d park wherever they want, they wouldn’t move when we asked. It became a real problem for us, working there.”
The increase in ferry traffic to the islands by about 20% in the last decade has compounded the problem of the food desert at the ferry landing.
Rhea Miller, a San Juan County commissioner from 1995 to 2005 and current president of the Lopez Chamber of Commerce, worries.
“I was so, so concerned when we lost the ability to vend down there,” Miller said. “At the time, the Lopez Community Land Trust thought about a food truck, even a bakery cart moving up and down the ferry line.” Miller sees the problem as a public health issue: “Those poor parents, what do they do with their kids for eight hours at a time?”
As for the quest for a solution, Miller recalled the experience of Jennifer Buckallew, co-owner of the food truck Poutine Your Mouth. “Jen was like, ‘Paperwork? Let me at it!’,” Miller said. “But she could get nowhere with WSF.”
Buckallew and partner Ted Warner had been eager to fill that food niche.
“Part of why we relocated [to Lopez] was because we were told we could just pop up and sell food down there,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. [Shelley Clark] doesn’t have the power to make food decisions, but she recognizes the need, and she helped us get in contact with WSF.”
But Buckallew’s attempts to deal with WSF’s contract department brought frustration. Knowing that WSF is, as Miller put it, “built for really big corporate vendors,” Buckallew proposed — on a vendor application form 280 pages long — a pilot of Poutine Your Mouth at the Lopez terminal in the busy season.
In an email dated Feb. 5, 2020, she wrote, “Seems to us, that this would be a huge service for the WSF to provide to tourists and locals who are stuck down at the ferry.” WSF’s business service manager Jadwiga Kellock responded with regrets: “Washington State Ferries is required by statute to conduct a competitive proposal process for ALL concession contracts located on WSF property. Unfortunately, there is no way around it, not even for short term or mobile food operations.”
Kellock’s email continued, “Due to other higher priority RFPs [Requests for Proposals] … we have no bandwidth to conduct additional RFPs for Lopez terminal in the near term.” The email exchange ended with a promise to include Poutine Your Mouth on the list when the Lopez RFP did arise — and a reminder about the Lopez vending machines.
Despite her determination and the support of the Washington State Food Truck Association, Buckallew’s “three years of ongoing persistence” since 2018 left her stymied. With her concerns about electricity, water and the rent WSF charges vendors year-round, regardless of seasonal business, she hit a wall. Said Buckallew, “I have 25 years of sales background; I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I just couldn’t get anyone to say ‘Yes, we want food at Lopez.’ It does not matter to them.”
Clark’s take on the issue was that WSF is interested in running a transportation system; they’re not in the business of renting to restaurants. “They just want to keep it safe so we can do our job.” At the time of publication, WSF had provided no response to questions on this topic.
Where would it even go?
But even if WSF did want to make Lopez dock eateries a priority, Clark said there’s no place for one. Ye Scurvy Dogs’ former footprint has turned into an indispensable holding area. “It’s not unusual to cram 150 bikes in there,” she said. And down below where Upright House once stood, large vehicles often use the space to back onto the ferry. “Going to Orcas on the 1:30 today,” Clark said, “I had two 65-footers — a boat trailer and a big truck, backing on. There’s just no place down there for a food concession anymore.”
What about Miller’s idea of a small food cart trundling up and down the ferry line? First of all, said Clark, WSF awards contracts for the whole system, so an individual island can’t just make up its own rules. And second, “It’s too congested; it’s just not safe.”
Clark wonders about staging a food truck at the entrance to Odlin County Park, 1.3 miles away, but Buckallew doubted people would walk that far, and Joe Ingman, Odlin Park manager, discouraged the idea: “It’s kind of a pinch point there, for congestion.”
San Juan County is not currently involved in this issue, said Kyle Dodd of the Health and Community Services Department. “If an applicant submitted a complete application that met our requirements for a foodservice permit we would approve it,” Dodd wrote in an email, citing the challenges of potable water and sewage disposal required for foodservice approval, and the need to meet zoning rules.
For a new restaurant to be built at the landing, Clark identified the only available space as the state-owned area east of the waiting lanes and below the portable toilets, a spot currently filled with graceful madrona trees and a picnic-perfect rocky outcropping overlooking the Salish Sea. The destruction of that natural beauty would provoke a huge outcry from locals, she thought, at the very least.
For the foreseeable future, everyone appears to agree that the best solution is educating the public to prepare themselves. This is a work in progress. Currently, the Lopez Chamber of Commerce website’s “What to Expect” tab lists rental cars, shopping malls and reliable cell service under the heading “What you won’t find,” but one must click specifically on the “Ferries” section to learn that food and water are unavailable at the dock.
The Lopez Island Historical Society’s Facebook page captions an old black-and-white of the Lopez Landing thus: “We all seem to love a good ferry landing pic. Must be something about how fundamental it is to the island experience. Whether you are a resident or visitor, the ferry landing is a welcome sign, escape hatch, drawbridge and roadblock all rolled into one. A place that can elicit strong emotions and memories that run the gamut from nostalgia and relaxation to extreme frustration, or even grief or fear.”
The cynical might add, ” … and hunger!”
So for now, that’s on you, traveler. You’ve been warned.
— Reported by Gretchen K. Wing
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