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Fast Food in the Slow Lane

It's been a long, strange trip aboard Beansie's Bus


Published May 17, 2000 at 5:09 p.m.

When Linda Jaques was a little girl, she and her dad used to wait all winter for their favorite sign of spring: Beansie’s big, yellow snack-bar school bus pulling up beside Burlington’s Battery Park. Thirty years later, Beansie’s Bus still sits at Battery Park from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, from the last Friday in March to the last Friday in September. The menu has barely budged from its classic American roots of hamburgers, hot dogs and what Jaques’ father, Robert Thibault, swears are “the best French fries in the nation.” Father and daughter still make weekly pilgrimages to receive Beansie’s sacrament of fries crisped to gilded perfection.

But Beansie’s isn’t just about potatoes hand-cut right on the bus and twice cooked in 100 percent animal fat. “It’s the fries and the Michigans,” Jaques corrects, biting into hers — a hot dog smothered in a rich, brown blend of spiced hamburger, ketchup, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.

Beansie’s Michigans inspire such ardent faith that expectant fathers have been dispatched to fetch the treat for their overdue wives in hopes of inducing labor. And no matter how much folks swear by Beansie’s cooking, the bus is about more than mere comestibles. During the 11 years Bill Peters and his family have ran the restaurant on wheels, they’ve been serving up sustenance not just for the body, but for the soul as well.

“It’s my dad,” suggests Peters’ daughter Elise, who’s up from Florida for the summer to help out. “He’s the inspiration. Any business he’s ever had, people flock to it.”

Peters was born in Winooski, the 16th child in a family of 19. Before buying Beansie’s Bus, he owned a series of businesses, the last of which was Longe Brothers Market on St. Paul Street. At 57, he’s a large man with a graying moustache, penetrating eyes and a consistently sunny disposition. When he needs to wheel a trash barrel onto the sidewalk, he does it to the cheerful tune of “Roll Out the Barrel.” When a customer spills his order on the sidewalk, Peter calls through the window, “We’ll fix that up. Don’t worry about it. What was on the pepper steak?” then steps outside to sweep up the mess. And when anyone shows up with a baby, he showers parent and child with cooing terms of endearment.

“It’s an interesting business,” Peter comments. “Every year the same people come back, share their lives, share their hopes and their problems.”

Bill Peters has always made a point of keeping his corner of the park litter-free and civil, and dispensing hugs and Band-Aids along with his hot dogs. But his customary kindness assumed added implications in 1997 when he visited Mejagori, Croatia, and saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. Today, he carries around a pocket of blessed religious medallions and hands them out to anyone who will take one. His primary motivation isn’t proselytizing, however. It’s praise. “If you take the time and listen, you’d be amazed,” he submits. “You have 100 opportunities a day put in front of your eyes to see how lucky you are.”

Beansie’s gets its name from its first owner, Hubert “Beansie” Dumas, who began selling hot dogs in 1944, first from a hand cart and then from an old, bull-nose-bus from the 1930s. When the vehicle got so old that he could not longer find parts for its engine. Dumas had to have it towed back and forth everyday between the park and the barn three miles up North Avenue, where it spent the night. “Then the guy started charging him,” Peters said, “So he had to get a new bus.”

In those days, Battery Park was still open to cars. On warm Friday nights, Thibault remembers concerts were held in the bandstand and local concessionaires ran carnival games. Creemees were sold at McRae’s, a snack bar just across Battery Street from the park.

Dumas was unable to stand to his full, tall height because of a chronically bent back — a disability some said was due to a war injury, others to a car accident. Kids who never saw him doing anything but peering through the service window swore that the guy’s body had adapted itself to the bus’ cramped, slope-ceilinged interior.

Paul Lafayette, who grew up on Murray Street, recalls the original Beansie as a no-nonsense character who “never took grief from anyone” — not even the tough drunks who brought their brawls to the park after the bars closed. He was all business, adds Thibault. “You got your food and got out.”

For 30 years, Dumas managed to keep the business running with help from his daughters and various other relatives. But eventually, the grueling hours took their toll. One day in 1974, he ran into his friend Ed Hershberg in Hill’s Hardware and told him that he was tired of the business. Ed and his brothers, David and Bucky, had been wholesaling fruits and vegetables but an internal dispute had forced their company to break up. The brothers had agreed to stay out of the produce business for five years. But Ed and David each had four children who were ready to start college, and they needed a new income source so Ed offered to buy the bus.

“It was all Eddie’s idea,” says David. “He called one day and said, ‘By the way, we own Beansie’s.”

By then it was the mid-70’s, and late-night Battery Park was dominated by drunks and drug dealers — 100 cars could pull into the park. The bus stayed open long after every other eatery in town had closed. “Beansie’s was a lively place,” David Hershburg reflects. “You got a nice clientele, shot-and-a-beer guys, college kids and druggies. We’d stay open until three, then close from exhaustion or because we’d run out of stuff to sell.”

Contending with rough weekend crowds was a major concern. “You’d hire somebody and could care less about whether they knew how to cook the hot dogs and the hamburgers,” Hershberg comments. More to the point, he says, was how tough an employee would be “when someone who’s a little under the weather decides they want to drive your bus. It’s wasn’t pretty,” he concludes, “but it was effective.”

The Hershbergs never considered the bus to be anything but a means to an end. They stuck close to the formula Dumas had developed, and worked long, hard hours. In 1980 when their five-year fruit and vegetable hiatus ended, the brothers were more than happy to sell Beansie’s to a new owner.

Jim LaPlant ran Acme Glass, which was then located just across Sherman Street from the park, in the building that now houses the Burlington Police Department. Given its location, buying Beansie’s seemed like a natural way to diversify. “My kids were in high school and they were looking for something to do,” LaPlant explains. But the bus turned out to be more trouble than he’d anticipated. “I used to get stuck working if a kid didn’t make it,” he remembers, still sounding sore. “It was too much with my other job as well.”

Even so, LaPlant held the concession for nearly a decade, and in that time, both Beansie’s Bus and Battery Park underwent significant changes. LaPlant replaced the old bus the Hersbergs had bought from Dumas with one that had belonged to the Elks and been outfitted with a wet bar for stag and road trips. With a full-time business to run by day, LaPlant was unwilling to keep late hours. Instead, he shut down promptly at 10 o’clock. In the park, the late-night crowds became so unruly — once even erupting into a violent melee with riot-clad police — that the city permanently closed it to automobiles. The noisy night scene abruptly ended. McRae’s creemee stand closed down. LaPlant filled the gap by installing his own soft-serve machine. He also took a cue from Charlie’s Red Hots, a popular summer eatery in Colchester and added Michigans to his menu.

Beansie’s creemees didn’t last long. But Michigans remain as essential to the bus as the mouth-watering fries, the gulls diving for crumbs and the flag waving over the windshield.

In the decade since Peters took the wheel, both Beansie’s Bus and Battery Park have been transformed into cleaner, more controlled remakes of their gritty, greasy, former selves. In his revamped bus kitchen, Peters has improved on LaPlant’s improvisation, devising his own “special spicy” Michigan sauce. He has expanded the sandwich board to include steaks and grilled chicken breasts — the later a nod to the health-conscious. In deference to the perky ice cream icon the bus still sports from its role in the film, Me, Myself and Irene — the Jim Carrey movie shot in Burlington last year — he’s considering reintroducing creemees.

This summer, for the first time, Beansie’s menu will be available at a second location: Waterbury, where Peter’s son Shawn will be operating a concession called “Beanzie’s.” One thing that will not change though, are the fries.

“People complain about the grease,” Peter admits. “But you can’t make good food without the grease.”

Battery Park saw a sharp decline in use after it was closed to cars. But in the last few ears, families have begun to return, their faces reflecting the neighborhood’s changing demographics. Last summer, the park proved a particularly popular gathering place for the neighborhood’s increasing numerous Vietnamese residents, some of whom, Peter says, will occasionally exchange their homemade spring rolls for his pepper steaks.

The presence of the police in the old Acme Glass building has meant more law and order. And a city law that forbids feeding the gulls — reinforced by a varnished wood reminder bolted to the side of the bus — makes for more garbage- and guano-free grass.

These changes seem to please the bus’ loyal clientele. “It’s just gotten better,” attests Lee Donaldson, who lives across the street from the park and has been coming to the bus his whole life. Donaldson is just one in a constant parade of patrons who stream out of their homes at the start of the season and stick around until September, when the grease-guzzling switches briefly to the Champlain Valley Fair. That’s when Peters, who works 180 days straight without a break, takes a well-deserved rest. But he’ll be back in the spring, eager to nurture his hungry flock. “It’s not a job. It’s a passion,” he avows.