What It's Like to Work at a Hot Dog Cart

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[Photographs: Aubrey Boonstra]

A few weeks ago, I decided to pull the trigger on a long-time dream of mine: stepping behind a cart as one of Chicago's hot dog-slinging vendors. To do so, I first had to obtain a degree from Vienna Beef's Hot Dog University vendor training program. Newly graduated and eager to take cart life from theory to practice, I prepared for my first day selling hot dogs.

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My Hot Dog University professor, Mark, guided me to Will and Marci Lehnert, owners of a three-cart operation called Hubby's in the Dog House. They work outside in Oz Park, a small oasis in the North Side neighborhood of Lincoln Park, for five months when it is warm, filling the winter with private parties and catering from their electric indoor cart.

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Marci and Will came to cart life after two successful but unsatisfying corporate careers—his in sales for CareerBuilder, hers as a CAD designer for Sears. They both hated desk work, and wondered what they could do to become their own bosses. At the beginning, they joked about just opening a hot dog cart. Soon it became the actual plan. Like me, Marci is a proud alum of Hot Dog U. In 2009, the same year that they got married, Will and Marci both quit their jobs and went into hot dog vending full-time. I have a hard time switching from one terrible cable provider to a slightly less terrible provider, so I'm slightly jealous of Will and Marci's self-assuredness. But they were nice enough to entrust a cart, the cash envelope, and a cooler full of delicious encased meats to a writer with a vague need to vend things. So here we were.

Preparing for the Day

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The cart, with three steam trays, a two-burner propane grill, and condiments facing customers in the front, is quite a bit larger than the hand-pushed torpedos immortalized in A Confederacy of Dunces. Everything is streamlined to minimize movement, with the placement of all the condiments and supplies strategically arranged to get the hot dogs out fast. The only exception is the tomato slices, which can't be kept outside the cooler very long on a hot day without turning to mush and which Hubby's only stocks on high-traffic summer days. It's simultaneously the most expensive ingredient and the biggest problem to manage.

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In addition to the natural casing hot dog and jumbo skinless dog, Hubby's menu features bratwurst, veggie dogs, Polish sausage, and a rotating chicken sausage special (today it's Cajun Andouille with grilled onions and crushed pineapple).

A what about the choice to serve ketchup or not? Many Chicago hot dog stands won't allow the red stuff anywhere close to their dogs. The answer, from Mark, Marci, Will, and almost everyone who actually makes a living at this: let the market decide. Leave the ketchup out for customers. You're not necessarily endorsing it (Mark still makes a face when talking about ketchup on hot dogs), but you're not loudly taking a stance either. Let the extremists and the places that can get away with it have their "Absolutely NO ketchup" signs.

Service Begins

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By 10:05 a.m. I was off and running. Who eats hot dogs this early in the morning on a Sunday? Surprisingly it wasn't a hungover college student from nearby DePaul University or an early-drinking Cubs fan, but a fit woman just finishing up a run with her friendly Labrador.

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When you're selling hot dogs in a park, things can go from incredibly slow to MADNESS in the space of 45 seconds. A line draws a line. People want freshly-squeezed lemonade, which can take between 25-to-45 seconds per drink. A group will suddenly decide to go all-in on bratwurst when you've only got four in the cart and ten in the cooler. Commodities markets, based on quantitative output and historical cycles, will defeat educated, experienced traders half the time. Hot dog markets, based on what I can only assume is chaos theory and wizard magic, requires all the instinct, speed, and on-the-fly adjustment necessary of a cable-TV antihero.

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As I started dealing dogs left and right, it became apparent to me that I had to keep track of a dozen or so things in real time. Everything's fully cooked, as Chicago's municipal regulations put much harsher restrictions on anyone cooking food from scratch, but sausages still have to be heated through before serving, but you can't just warm everything up in the beginning and wait until you sell out. Space is limited. The dogs and Polishes have a short life before going from delicious red to a sad paleness. Brats and Polishes need a char to finish, and people don't like waiting for long periods at a cart. You've got to keep sausages cold until they need to be hot, and there's not always enough time between the two states. So while you've got two regulars, a jumbo, two Polishes, and a brat waiting, you need to know exactly how many remain floating in trays, how long the charred sausages have been on the grill, and whether you have enough sauerkraut to satisfy the next four East Coast transplants.

The Business of Hot Dogs

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Exactly how remunerative is a $3 dog as a business proposition? Marci and Will tell me that a typical Saturday or Sunday can net between $800 and $1,000 before food costs depending on weather, foot traffic, Little League baseball, and sundry other factors. They work from about 10 a.m. until 3 or 4 p.m., depending on business, stock, and private event plans. Their highest sales day netted just over $1,400. The night before I worked for them, they catered a party for Matthew Glave, better known as Glenn Guglia in The Wedding Singer. Don't let anyone tell you the Third Coast isn't glamorous.

I hoped to keep count of per-sausage sales as well as total sales for the day. That lasted until about the fifth sale. People love sausage, and do not find "I need to make a tally of each sale" to be an acceptable excuse for delay. So, I guess I sold somewhere between 40 and 5,000 natural casing dogs, jumbo dogs, brats, Polish, chicken, and veggie sausages. The real number is likely in the high 60s or early 70s. That's not counting chips, drinks, lemonades, and gummi hot dogs (like gummi bears, but ... obviously).

But the lessons I learned at Hot Dog U did come in handy. Small additions—a dollar extra here or there on each sale—add up to a real profit. Polish sausages, which are basically jumbo hot dogs with a higher level of spicing (particularly paprika) sell at wholesale for only slightly more, but are generally priced at about a dollar more than hot dogs at stands and carts around the city. Sell a bag of chips and a can of pop for a dollar or dollar-fifty and you'll bank a good deal extra at the end of a busy festival. Simply asking people if they want a specific item helps tremendously. Back in the hallowed half of Hot Dog U, Mark Reitman taught me that you can only expect about 1 in 3 of your customers to order a drink on their own, but if you ask, the percentage of people walking away with a can of pop goes to just over half.

Cleaning Up

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The lunch crowd dissipated and traffic thinned at the stand around 2 p.m. It felt like the last day of summer camp, save for the pervasive aroma of onions and mustard. It was time to leave, go over my notes, and report on everything I'd learned.

I'd taken the class. I'd worked the cart. I was hoping to see what life as a vendor was about, and I'd gotten everything I'd hoped for. There are obviously the less-than-glamorous parts to the job—managing inventory, paying the city for permits, and trying to park a Suburban in Lincoln Park—but I can see why Will, Marci, and hundreds of others decide that it's the life for them. Fresh air, setting your own hours, and the look on someone's face when you give them exactly what they want at that moment in time. You can't ignore how important it is to enjoy your work.

Plus, there are always hot dogs around. And man, do I love hot dogs.

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