Words by Greg Pokriki; additional words and photos by Olivia Lopez
There are always signs that you’re in a metropolitan city. Some of these are literal: green metal, with white sans serif typeface that reads "R o c h e s t e r."
But others are much more subtle.
In some cities, it’s the rumble of a subway at your feet, the steam rising through the grates ahead. In others, it’s the cheer of a home run exiting a downtown stadium. In many, it’s a colorful umbrella you can see from a few blocks back. One with a hot grill in its shade, and meat on the fire.
Under the beacon-like yellow and red umbrella of Mr. V’s mobile vending cart stands owner and operator Jon Verno. This summer, Verno celebrated his twentieth anniversary in street vending.
Many landmark moments in his life happened while he held a spatula in one hand and tongs in the other. Verno remembers when he first learned he was going to have a son: his girlfriend at the time ran up to the cart, overwhelmed with the news. He was on the streets for the New Year’s celebration during Y2K, telling his employees he loved them as the uncertain seconds ticked down. (When the world didn’t end, he turned around to a line of 15 hungry customers.) After learning that his father passed after a fourth battle with cancer, Verno took the cart out to work and escape. On those nights, Verno was at the corner of Goodman and Monroe. But he also has lunchtime wheels on the ground on Crittenden Boulevard and East Avenue.
Street meat is undeniably a sign of metropolitanism. It requires and encourages foot traffic on city streets. It attracts downtown workers with ironed white collars and dirt covered blue ones, and has no qualms about staining a red blob of ketchup on either one of them.
Rachel Barnhart - a former TV reporter and current candidate for state assembly - is a board member of Reconnect Rochester, which spreads awareness and education about transportation and walkability downtown. “Street vendors are a vital component to making the city vibrant, and to making young people want to live and work here,” says Barnhart. “Street vendors and all retail (increase) foot traffic in the city."
Verno’s Crittenden location is right outside Strong Memorial Hospital. At any given time, a receptionist at the front desk, a doctor, a nurse and an accountant from the billing room can all be at his cart.
“You get the doctor that’s having a big mess up there - they’re stressed and they come out and they talk sports," says Verno. "And for those two or three minutes, they forget. A good vendor is part psychologist and part friend. Something I’ve always said is ‘Hey you don’t have to get anything.’ If you want to come down here and talk sports, that’s fine.”
Though food trucks seem to have taken over city lunch breaks in recent years, Verno is quick to make a distinction between the trucks and his cart. “A lot of the food trucks go out-of-the-box, and the further you go out of the box, the smaller your demographic gets," Verno says. "There’s a lot of good things, but maybe you don’t want to drop $14 for lamb tacos with goat cheese.”
That's not to say Verno isn't a fan of food trucks, though. “I think the food trucks have helped mobile vending. But they’re such different beasts.” Verno often corrects people when they mistake his cart for a truck. Ultimately, though, he believes that personal touch makes a difference.
“Physically, you're at the same eye level - (customers) can see the grill, can see the operation," says Verno. "You’re right there. You can give them a hug.”
After logging two decades on the streets of the city, Verno has had a front row seat to Rochester’s renaissance. More importantly, he’s met the people behind it.
“I don’t even know their names,” Verno says. “But it comes back to me real quick: A white hot with cheese.”