Destroying apathy one beer at a time

P.J. McHenry (right) and Felix Wai, co-founders of ArtsRiot.
Luke Awtry Photography
P.J. McHenry (right) and Felix Wai, co-founders of ArtsRiot.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — In what was once on old grocery store on newly hip Pine Street corridor lies a restaurant and music venue with a unique social mission: destroy apathy.

Five years ago, Pine Street, a 10-minute walk from trendy Church Street, pretty much closed up at five o’clock. Today, with ArtsRiot performing arts center and cafe as its unofficial cultural anchor, the two-mile stretch of road bustles with activity all day and into the night.

The street is home to a string of art galleries, thrift shops, coffee shops, cider halls, bakeries, breweries, a well-known chocolate factory, and other businesses big and small.


“Hope is what fuels us to act,” said P.J. McHenry, co-founder and owner with partner Felix Wai of the four-year-old, 220-seat event space, restaurant, music venue, and all around neighborhood hangout. “Our mission is to destroy apathy so that there is room for hope to grow.”

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The duo’s cerebral vision to change the world has taken off. With backgrounds in economics and ecological design focusing on sustainable buildings and lifestyles, McHenry and Wai, who is currently on hiatus from a PhD program in ecological design at the University of Vermont, were interested in using eco design to start a business with a purpose. “We looked at how energy, resources, and living organisms move through space and designed ArtsRiot with that in mind,” McHenry said.

Regular customer and artist Mimi Maygar first came to Artsriot two years ago after moving to Vermont from Washington, D.C., where she was a family lawyer representing children of divorce.

“Part of ArtsRiot’s vibrancy is that art is everywhere — in its communications, in its music, in its food” — even in chef/owner George Lambertson’s approach to serving food. “He selects interesting bowls and plates from nearby shops to add to the restaurant’s collection. It adds visual interest to the amazing food he serves and also supports the local community,” she said. One of Maygar’s intense hand-drawn graphic designs graced the venue’s August calendar.

ArtsRiot isn’t just another restaurant or a place that slings beer. Paper Castles guitarist Paddy Reagan regularly perform gratis or at reduced rates to raise money for various local causes. “The venue’s built-in crowd helps brings people to the space, while also showcasing the needs of area nonprofits.”


The dining room, which has the feel of a funky underground space with boldly painted walls, brings in an eclectic crowd from the neighborhood, students from local colleges, and out-of-town visitors.

And the food is locally sourced and reasonably priced. Its weekly Friday night Truck Stop runs through September in the parking lot behind the building and brings in a number of other food trucks to offer some of Burlington’s best dishes.

The event space offers an eclectic mix that has something for everyone: one night super-short stories during a moth slam night, another night a neighborhood meeting with the chance to have a voice on a public works project. Or stop in to see a screening of an old-school horror movie or attend a fund raiser for local refugee support organizations.

Wai uses the example of his own parents to illustrate how ArtsRiot can change attitudes.

“My parents emigrated to the US from China years ago and are pretty conservative. Last winter they came in for dinner and were wondering what was happening in the event space. I explained that the local gay community was marking an anniversary by staging the musical ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’ I warned them that it was rather risque, but they were curious. Afterward my dad said that never in his life would he have gone to that show, but he really enjoyed it.”


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Carla Beecher can be reached at [email protected].