Street Meat, Street Eats, How Does Your Vendor Go?
March 28, 2013 10:58 AM   Subscribe

What's it like to operate a hotdog stand in Canada or the US?

I'm writing a piece of fiction with a protagonist who works as a hotdog vendor. Tell me about your experiences doing this/observing this. How do they go to the bathroom? What's the money like? Does everyone own their own cart or are they rentals?

I will also interview actual cart operators but thought I'd start here first.
posted by lizifer to Work & Money (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't offer any first-hand experiences, but here are some resources online: How to become a vendor in New York and tips for selling on the streets of New York; and New York vendors protest new bathroom rules, in which unattended "mobile food vending unit" is subject to on-the-spot seizure of the vendor’s permit.

See also: Answers about New York’s street vendors, part 1, part 2, and part 3; and The Street Vendor Project, a vendors' movement in New York City.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:19 AM on March 28, 2013

a piece of fiction with a protagonist who works as a hotdog vendor

... and you're already familiar with A Confederacy of Dunces, right?
posted by Rash at 11:49 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also can't offer any first-hand experiences, but it's also worth noting that street food vendor experiences outside of New York City are wildly different from street food vendor experiences in New York City. NYC is so dense that an object the size of a sidewalk cart takes up valuable space wherever it is, so regulations are heavy and tightly enforced. A major city as spread out as Los Angeles will have fewer regulations and far, far less enforcement.
posted by smoq at 11:57 AM on March 28, 2013

Response by poster: I am, Rash, thanks! Very different everything else except the hotdog vendor bit. :-)
posted by lizifer at 12:01 PM on March 28, 2013

You might be interested in reading Jerry Strahan's Managing Ignatius: The Lunacy of Lucky Dogs and Life in New Orleans. Blurb:

For more than 20 years, Strahan managed the Lucky Dog company, whose vendors sell wienies out of the seven-foot-long hot dog-shaped carts that can be found on almost any street corner in New Orleans's French Quarter. He gave his book its present title because Ignatius J. Reilly, the outsized hero of John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, is a composite of actual Lucky Dog vendors, though Strahan confesses he thought of calling it A Hundred and One People I Wish I Had Never Met. Apparently, altar boys don't peddle pups in the Quarter, and the author found himself riding herd on a crew mainly of transients too antsy to do any other kind of work; some stayed for years, but most took off after a few weeks, often with the company's share of the proceeds. "Deep down inside they were basically kind, loyal, and caring people," writes Strahan, "but these qualities rarely surfaced." A historian who dropped out of the Tulane doctoral program for a temporary job that became a permanent one, Strahan kept his sanity by flexing a comic sense that also keeps the reader laughing. And drooling, too, because only a diehard frankophobe will be able to read Managing Ignatius without intermittent longings for a Lucky Dog in a steamed bun topped with chili, cheese and onions; the product stays the same, even if the vendors don't.

It's been a while since I've read the book, but there's probably some good stuff in there for you.
posted by griseus at 1:30 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It is going to vary dramatically from city to city. In Chicago, no food carts of any kind are permitted, so any of the people you see selling elotes or similar Latin American snack foods are basically at the mercy of the authorities. Hot dogs are only sold in hot dog shops.

In New York, there is a wide range of food carts and trailers- everything from the standard New York hot dog, to the sandwich trucks that serve worksites, to falafel and halal meat cones, noodles, Korean bbq, etc. Food trucks in the new "hipster" sense have also taken off in a big way and serve nearly anything.

In Toronto, only hot dogs can be sold from a cart. The city tried to launch a program to support other kinds of food being sold from carts- it was mismanaged, and failed miserably. It is very difficult to get a license and a location for a hot dog cart (they are jealously guarded, and several individuals or families hold multiple licenses). Once you have a license, though, it is difficult to lose it, even with multiple health code violations. Owners are very territorial about their locations (which are assigned with the license), and while they do have to remove carts when they aren't in operation, very often they will set up semi-permanent structures (tents, heaters, etc.) around their carts, as well as putting out a cooler with drinks, a little table with condiments, etc. Working on the street in Toronto, at night, and in winter can be very difficult for cart operators, so the heaters, blinds, etc. are there as much for the benefit of the worker as the customer. Working in the entertainment districts when the bars let out can also be very difficult (drunk people) but that is when hot dog carts make a lot of their money. Unsurprisingly, carts in the business district do a lot of their trade at lunchtime.

As opposed to the typical steamed New York hot dog, a hot dog in Toronto is typically blanched and kept in a steam tray within the cart. When a customer orders one, it is placed on a gas grill for several minutes, scored with a knife, and then placed on an egg bun for the customer, who garnishes it himself. Customers usually have the choice of standard frankfurter, bratwurst, polish sausage, or veggie dog. Condiments can include ketchup, mustard (several varieties), bbq sauce, hot sauce, mayo, pickle relish, corn relish, chopped tomatoes, chopped onions, sliced dill rounds, shredded cheese, pickled peppers, and bacon bits. There is no consensus on what constitutes proper hot dog toppings (in contrast, Chicago hot dogs are typically finished on a grill to the customer's desired degree of char, or thrown in a deep fryer. The appropriate toppings for a Chicago hot dog are yellow mustard, pickle relish, sliced tomatoes, chopped onions, sport peppers, a pickle spear, and celery salt).

Food trucks in Toronto are a different matter, as there have always been chip trucks (selling french fries and sometimes burgers) and trucks selling Chinese food around the University. They don't have to buy a license from the city (as long as they are legally parked), but they do have to be inspected. This has created an opening for the new "hipster" type trucks to sell a greater variety of foods, and succeed where the city's food cart program failed.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:42 PM on March 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, thewhiteskull. Have you run a hot dog stand by any chance?
posted by lizifer at 4:13 PM on March 28, 2013

Best answer: No, I'm just familiar with street food in a lot of different places (I do a good deal of drinking, and often have to get food at odd hours).

I should also mention that it seems like the hot dog carts in Toronto seem to get their supplies from one or two vendors, hence the uniformity of offering.

Other additional points-

In Chicago, your choices are either a beef frankfurter (the local brand is Vienna Beef, but Wrigley Field sells Hebrew National), a Polish sausage (just called a "Polish") or a cheese dog. Some places might also do things like wrap a Polish in bacon and deep fry it.

In Chicago, hot dogs are usually consumed on premises, or in warmer months, at picnic tables outside the location. People don't do the "eat and walk" as often, partially because of the number of toppings.

Getting a "Chicago-style" hot dog with all the correct fixings is sometimes called "dragging it through the garden."

Getting a Chicago style hot dog is not compulsory. Other acceptable toppings include chili, cheese sauce, or sauerkraut.

If you put ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago, people will shun you, or possibly throw rocks at you in the street.

One of the best known hot dog shops in Chicago is Wiener's Circle, which has a reputation for the verbal abuse the night staff heaps upon drunken customers (usually DePaul students).

Other well-known hot dog shops in Chicago include Devil Dogs, which (I think) is owned by a former member of the band Chicago; and Hot Doug's, which sells hand-made sausages and fries cooked in duck fat.

In Chicago, there are also guys who come around to the bars that don't serve food with coolers full of warm tamales. 6 tamales usually costs in the neighborhood of $3.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:48 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

This was my best job ever! I worked for a guy in CT who had three carts. When I trained with him, he would cook up the dogs, have a continual banter with the customers, joke and be the entertainment, and we snuck beers in the cooler. House O' Weenies tried to put us out of business by setting up a cart right next to us, selling dogs at two-for-one prices. People still lined up around my boss and stayed loyal to him. House O' Weenies slunk off after a few weeks after selling about three hot dogs total. This was because my boss would be out every day, rain or snow, serving up the dogs and the funniest banter you could imagine. Not to mention remembering everyone by name, what how they liked their dogs, etc. Very similar to a good bartender, actually.

When he set me up with my own cart, I was on a street in front of a liquor store. I used the bathroom in the liquor store and would buy an occasional soda from them. A guy across the way owned a video arcade. He would come over to buy beer from the liquor store and would bring out wine coolers for me to drink. In return, I would feed his german shepherd hot dogs. When it was slow, I had a lounge chair and a boom box and would just chill with my wine cooler.

It was 20+ years ago, but I would bring in a couple of hundred bucks a day if the location was right, even though the locations were just outside of the city, nothing that looked like a busy place.

I do believe my boss bought a house with a pool and put his kid through college with three carts.

The bad thing was that we had the BEST Italian sausages. I love Italian sausages...
posted by Vaike at 5:32 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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