Back Alley’s, its billboard still featuring posters and advertisements, remains vacant. The doors are chained shut, the lamps and windows crisscrossed with cobwebs. The green paint on the front doors is chipping, and the window glass is dirty. Peering through the layer of grime on the windows, one can see counters and barren newsstands pulled away from the bare walls.
Nearby, businesses pulse with life. Alley’s General Store and its attached farm stand attract a steady stream of customers. Across the street, vistors walk through the Field Gallery and Sculpture Garden. Meanwhile, the building owned by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) that once housed a popular pastry and sandwich shop sits out the summer action.
Beyond vague declarations of intention, no one associated with the ownership of the building or the leasing of it has anything definitive to say about its future.
In April, there was a glimmer of hope that Back Alley’s might re-open. Wenonah Madison and Daniel Sauer applied for a special permit from the West Tisbury zoning board of appeals to operate a food counter and take-out business.
According to the minutes of West Tisbury zoning board of appeals hearings on April 8 and 22, the ZBA granted the couple a permit that would allow them to run Back Alley’s as a food counter, prepare value-added food products, sell take-out food items, including ice cream, and provide sustainable food cooking classes. During the hearing, Ms. Madison and Mr. Sauer said they planned some interior renovations to make better use of the space. The couple asked permission for an ice cream and take-out window that would remain open until 9 pm. The board granted the permit unanimously, but it denied the addition of the take-out window, due to concerns about parking and traffic flow in the parking lot. During the hearing, the couple acknowledged that the restoration of Back Alley’s would be a lot of work.
Nothing visible has happened since, but in a telephone conversation last week, Ms. Madison said that she hopes to revive Back Alley’s soon.
“There’s not really anything new to report,” she said. “We’re still in negotiations with the tribe.” Ms. Madison said that the relationship is still fine, it’s just taking time. Ms. Madison said she still hopes that Back Alley’s will become a breakfast and lunch counter.
Mr. Sauer would not comment. “The summer comes and it gets busy,” he said. He said he and his wife are still working on it and have every intention of opening.
The husband and wife team are experienced in the food business. Mr. Sauer was formerly the chef at the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah. Ms. Madison, a Wampanoag tribe member, has worked in the food service business in New York City. The couple has two young children.
Why the popular location is vacant and not generating rent for the tribe or profits for an operator at the height of the busy summer season remains a mystery. Several people acquainted with the business could not offer an explanation.
Spencer Booker, manager of Alley’s General Store, a member of the tribe, and an Aquinnah selectman, said he did not know anything. Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which owns Alley’s General Store, said he knew little.
“At several points in the past we, the Preservation Trust, had expressed an interest in discussing the acquisition of the property from the tribe,” he said, “but to date the discussions have not been fruitful.”
In a telephone call Friday, Tobias Vanderhoop, tribe administrator, said he was not the correct person to speak with regarding the status of Back Alley’s. He said he did not have any information.
In a telephone conversation Wednesday, Durwood Vanderhoop, tribe grantsman/planner, told The Times that no lease has yet been concluded. Asked why Back Alley’s remains closed at the height of summer, he said, “The only hold up is we weren’t able to get a deal done before the summer season.” He added that both parties decided not to go forward with the project in the middle of the busy season.
The location has been vacant since November 2, when Paul Garcia, owner of Garcia’s Deli, unexpectedly shut his doors and moved out (Nov. 5, “Garcia’s closes over rent hikes“). According to Mr. Garcia, his annual rent was more than $60,000, plus a percentage of the business’s gross sales.
The tribe bought Back Alley’s café from former owner Howard Ulfelder in the spring of 1999. The tribe opened Back Alley’s as a café in summer 1999, selling sandwiches and baked goods. The doors closed abruptly in February 2001, when the manager left, citing differences with the tribe.
The facility remained vacant until August 2002, when the tribe made a deal with Mr. Garcia, and Back Alley’s reopened as Garcia’s.