The Hot Dog Stand: Five Variations
by: Steven Keiths © 10/2008
A Dream Come True
Enrique held a package of hot dog buns over his head, trying to keep the rain off his face. Tongs in one hand, the buns in the other, he stood patiently beside his cart as the downpour soaked all but his head. Five men, Wall Street types wearing their trademark business suits, were huddled beneath his umbrella. Their dark suits were in sharp contrast to the bright orange and yellow stripes of the umbrella, or the shiny chrome of his new hot dog cart. They chatted with each other, noshing on their ketchup and mustard slathered hot dogs, oblivious to the rain, oblivious to Enrique getting soaked. Enrique didn’t mind—he even smiled. These were his first customers. Enrique had been putting his savings away for this very moment since he was 15 years-old. That was seven long years ago. He had just made his first ten- dollar sale. He was now an entrepreneur.
Sal had watched the boy, had seen that he was getting more disheartened as the lunch crowd ignored him: his pleas for coins had become softer, less hopeful. “Spare change, mist..?” he’d try to say, only to have the men push past him time and again, oblivious to anything but their hunger and tight schedules, sometimes almost knocking the boy down as they forced their way to the hot dog stand. The kid, who looked to be ten, maybe eleven, was wearing frayed jeans and a T-shirt that hung loosely on his slender frame. He had been hanging about since Sal had set up for lunch, panhandling, or at least trying to. Lunchtime on Wall Street, with the hustle and bustle of stressed businessmen rushing to grab a quick bite to eat, was not the best time to be begging for coins. Sal, as he busily served hot dogs and sodas and bags of chips to the lunchtime crowd from his cart, kept glancing over at the boy, feeling progressively worse for the little guy as time passed with no money being dropped into his small, outstretched hand.
The lunchtime rush finally ended. Sal took a deep breath and relaxed against his cart with a smile on his face. He’d had a profitable day. He started to pack away his things, then stopped. Turning, he took a look at the boy, now sitting on the ground with his head hanging. Sal walked over to him, reached down and touched the boy’s shoulder. The boy looked up, and Sal asked, “Hey, kid, how’d ya’ like to make a buck?”
The boy’s eyes snapped wide open. “Uh, sure, Mister, what da’ ya’ want me ta do?”
“Help me put all this stuff away and push my cart over to that pickup truck and hook it up.”
The boy jumped up, and Sal showed him what needed to be done. The boy was eager to help, and a willing worker. Sweat formed on his brow as he struggled, strained and grunted, but he managed to get the ice chest moved despite its weight, then handed the remainder of the supplies to Sal until everything was loaded.
“Watch your fingers,” Sal warned as they hitched the cart to the truck.
When they were all done, and Sal was ready to get into his truck, he handed the kid a baggy containing five unsold hot dogs and buns. He also gave him two dollar bills.
Smiling, the boy looked up at Sal and said, “Hey, thanks, Mister, uh, but, you made a mistake. This is two bucks!”
“Yeah, well, you earned it. You did mosta’ the work.”
The boy started to walk away, but after only two steps, stopped and turned to Sal, who was getting into his truck. The boy hesitated, then said, “Hey, Mister, if ya’ want, I can be here tomorra ta’ help ya.”
Sal smiled. He admired someone who wanted to work. “Sure kid, and by the way, what’s yer name?”
“Okay, Timmy, see ya’ tomorra.” Sal pulled away from the curb feeling good, knowing Timmy would have something to eat. The kid looked too thin.
Timmy, neatly folding his money and putting it in his jean’s pocket, walked away also feeling good, and not only because he had something to eat. He had something else, something almost as good. He had something to look forward to tomorrow.
“Hey, Buddy, are these real hot dogs, ya’ know, all-beef, and not those damn chicken-filled pieces of crap?”
The customer was an sour-looking man with a protruding, round stomach and red face wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a striped muscle shirt about a size too small for him. He had moved up to the hot dog stand in a way such that he’d cut in front of two other customers who’d been waiting their turn. That he’d moved directly to the front of a line of customers didn’t appear to concern him in the least.
“No, they’re all-beef,” said the vendor. “Let me get to these people first, and I’ll be right with you.”
The hot dog man, his stooped shoulders, gray hair, gnarled hands and arthritic body movements bearing testament to each and every one of his sixty-two years, answered the man reluctantly, his manner clearly showing his desire to help the next person in line.
“Well, I’m in hurry,” the customer said with impatience.
“One sec, please, sir.”
“Oh, and I want everything on it too.” The man seemed determined not to be shuttled aside.
“Uh, all the fixins, are right there on the side, you can put anything on it ya’ want. I’ll be with you in just a moment, sir.”
“Jesus, ya’d think at a buck seventy-five, ya’d get a little better service.”
The vendor ignored this remark and tended to the two people in front of the irascible customer. When he had served them, he used his tongs to pull a dog from the steamer, dropped it into a bun, wrapped it in white paper, and handed it to the irate customer, somehow managing a smile on his wrinkled, weatherworn face. Then he turned to the next customer.
“Hey, Mac, ya got any of that spicy mustard, not this French’s crap that’s probably not even French’s, but some sort of fake stuff. I know how you guys like to cut corners on expenses.”
Pointing with his tongs, not even turning to look at the overweight customer but with his shoulders slumping just a bit lower, the hot dog man answered, “Next to the ketchup.”
“Hell, ya think it would be next to the yellow mustard, not the damn ketchup,” the man complained loudly and argumentatively.
Then an unmistakable sound could be heard. Phrillurp! The squeeze bottle was empty.
“Oh, great, the damn thing’s run out and now I got mustard splattered on my shirt. How long have you been in business, anyway?”
“Sorry, sir, let me wet a napkin for you. It’ll help get the mustard off your shirt. It should wash out when you do your laundry. Oh, and here—” The hot dog man reached into an ice chest at his feet, retrieving a new bottle of spicy mustard and handing it to the fuming fat man.
The customer took it without a word, but then asked, again interrupting the vendor as he tried in vain to help his next cutomer, “Hey old man, are these onions fresh? Don’t want to be catching no damn salmonella.”
“Diced fresh this morning,” replied the vendor.
“Well, if I get sick, you can bet your damn ass, I’ll be back,” the man threatened. He gave the hot dog man a withering look, then turned and walked away.
The old vendor watched him without any change in his expression other than a slight wrinkling at the corners of his eyes. It took him a moment, but then he turned to the next person in line. The person waiting at the counter smiled, a little tentatively, showing his embarrassment and not sure just what to say. The old man shook his head, dismissing the moment. “What can I get for you, sir?” he asked, showing nothing of what he was feeling inside.
A Fond Memory
“See here kids,” said the exuberant father as he pulled his two young boys over to the hot dog cart shaded by a large, red and yellow striped umbrella. “When I was a kid, these only cost a nickel. Wow, look at the price now—a dollar seventy-five. But still, they’re the best hot dogs you can buy. Not like those ones you buy in a package at the grocery store. I’m going to get two. How many do you kids want?”
The two boys looked at each other, seemed to silently communicate, then both held up two fingers.
“You sure you can eat two apiece?” asked the dad. Both nodded their heads. “Okay, then two it is.”
All three of them bit into their hot dogs.
“Oh, God, aren’t these great? You can feel a crunch when you bite into them. They’re nothing like those store-bought ones. When you bite into those you feel like you just bit into a bar of softened butter. See how juicy these are, too? No, sirree, now this is what I call a hot dog.”
The two little boys again glanced at each other and shrugged their shoulders. They were not aware there was epicurean judgment to be made about hot dogs. They just gulped theirs down, and watched their father delighting in a childhood memory.
I just can’t believe this. A bachelor’s degree in business and I’m operating a hot dog stand. A little pushcart hot dog stand. My father’s counsel that ‘you can’t go wrong with a business degree’ certainly hasn’t panned out. After graduating, I searched for weeks trying to find a job, any job. Does selling hot dogs out of a cart on a street corner qualify as a job? Yeah, I guess it does. Barely.
“Could I have two dogs, one with sauerkraut?” requests the customer, interrupting me from feeling sorry for myself.
“Sure, would you like a soda and some chips with that?”
That’s what we were taught at the training class. Would you believe that they actually have a training class in how to sell hot dogs? What with my business degree, I thought I shouldn’t have to attend the training with the others, but they wouldn’t give me the job unless I sat through it. So I did. They stressed that to be successful, we had to provide good service, and always be thinking about increasing sales. Pushing items to go with what had already been ordered was one way to do that, they said.
“Yeah, I’ll have a Coke and a bag of those barbecue chips,” he says, pointing at the rack of snacks on display.
“That’ll be two dogs, one with sauerkraut, one Coke and a bag of barbeque chips; coming right up, sir. Your total will be four bucks.”
You always tell the customer the total of the order before you start to fill it. you don’t want to hear, ‘oh, sorry, I don’t have that much cash on me right now.’ Once the dog is out of the steamer, you can’t put it back. “And you don’t want to do that,” one of the instructors had said, “because if you have to throw it away, that’s an increase to your costs. Keeping costs down as much as keeping profits up is the trick to being successful,” he’d kept harping at us.
“Here you go. Two hot dogs, this one with sauerkraut, a Coke and you can just take the chips from the rack. Thank you. All the condiments are at the side of the cart.”
I take off my protective disposable gloves to take his cash and make change. The gloves are a requirement of the health department for food handlers. Can’t be too careful with all manner of germs floating around. Can’t have someone getting sick and suing, stressed the instructors at the hot dog training session. If a health inspector should see you without gloves, he’d shut you down, throw all your dogs away, and maybe you’d even lose your license. We were told we had to learn and the follow all the regulations that applied to street vendors selling food. They gave us pamphlets, then tested us on them.
“Kids, quiet down so I can order,” my next customer, a young father, admonishes his two rambunctious children.
“We’ll have three hot dogs, please,” requests the frazzled dad.
“Would you like sodas and chips with those?” I inquire.
After a brief powwow with his kids, he says, “We’ll have a Coke and two Sprites.”
“Daddy, Daddy, I want a bag of chips.”
“Me too,” chimes in his sibling.
We were taught to repeat the order, and if someone—like a kid—requested something, you’d throw that in too. It was yet another way to increase sales. 95% of the time people went along with the order you repeated back to them. I repeat the order, adding in the additional snacks request by the two hyper kids, and tell the daddy his total will be $8.
After giving them their order and taking their money, I watch the father herding his two small fry to a nearby patch of grass to eat their dogs. I wipe the counter as I was instructed to do after each customer as been served and continue to wonder what it is I could possibly learn about business from this job.