“Sure, it’s a hipster hangout, but it’s also the place the local Parent Teacher Organization wants to hold its fundraising dinner. It’s a fun place — the kind of place people want to go.”
In 2012, two friends, PJ McHenry and Felix Wai, had the idea that Burlington’s art, food, and music scenes could be knitted together to strengthen the community itself, so they started a website, artsriot.com, that was essentially a calendar compilation of shows and happenings they deemed cool. Less than a year later, the pair leased a former auto shop along the industrial chic Pine Street corridor, hosting exhibitions, renting out studio space, and attracting food trucks to the adjacent parking lot. “We had the sense pretty early on that we wanted to be involved with food,” said Wai. “I grew up in Memphis and went to college in New Orleans. I’ve seen how food can be a cultural centerpiece for a community.”
By the fall of 2013, ArtsRiot had moved to a much larger space along the corridor. But with scant knowledge of the food industry, McHenry and Wai endured several failed experiments before finally enlisting veteran Burlington chef George Lambertson as a partner. With Lambertson righting the ship on the food side — ArtsRiot soon became known for its inspired and diverse menu — the venture stabilized as a business, and surged ahead on its original social mission. In a typical year, ArtsRiot now hosts some 250 events and works with about 50 nonprofit organizations, 100 musicians and 500 individual partners.
Wai, who still serves as a host or doorman on any given night, is looking to add his next idea — an app that he describes as an online volunteer coordination and rewards platform. “This app fits right in line with ArtsRiot’s mission, that is, we want you involved in something,” said Wai. “It sets up a community network and gives people an incentive to be involved.”