Monday, June 7, 2010

REPRINT: Gloom Spreads, Carts Sprout All Over

Dogged Pursuit:
Professionals Find
New Livelihood Selling Frankfurters

As Gloom Spreads, Carts Sprout All Over;
The Guajardo Family's Stand in Texas

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below)

Texas -- In hard times, some small-town Americans are turning to a new
livelihood with relish.

Among them are Andrea and Ben Guajardo.
They began selling hot dogs from a pushcart on Main Street in November.

Guajardo is a grant administrator for a health-care system. Her
husband, Ben, is a pipeline operator. Theirs is the first hot-dog stand
in Bandera, pop. 957, that anybody here can remember.

"It's a
backup plan," says Ms. Guajardo, a mother of four. "No one knows what's
going to happen with the economy, and I don't want to have to scrounge
for a minimum-wage job."

Sarah E. Needleman/The Wall
Street Journal

Andrea and Ben Guajardo
both work full-time, but began selling wieners with help from their four
kids in November.

Facing pay cuts and weakened
job security, more Americans are turning to this century-old, big-city
trade in outposts like Bandera, where cowboys on horseback share the
road with motorcyclists. Many of these vendors are working professionals
with day jobs, ranging from real-estate agents to train operators.

of carts, which start at about $2,000 new, have heated up in the past
year. "Every model is...taking off," says Joel Goetz, owner of American
Dream Hot Dog Carts Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla. Since January, he has
sold about 25 carts a week, 15 more than usual.

"Business is
really off the charts," says Dan Jackson, a division manager at Nation's
Leasing Services in Newbury Park, Calif. Leases for hot-dog carts
account for about three-quarters of sales, and revenue is triple what it
was this time a year ago, he says.

Hot dog vendors are a
familiar sight in big cities around the country. For one Texas family,
their weekend business is bringing in extra cash amid a slumping
economy. Sarah Needleman reports from Bandera, Texas.

cart buyers are generally older and have more white-collar work
experience than was traditionally the case, says Will Hodgskiss,
president and "top dog" at Willy Dog Ltd., a New York cart manufacturer. 

"People are either buying these carts in anticipation of a layoff or to
supplement their incomes," he says. Willy Dog's sales are up 30% from
March 2007.

Street Food of Choice

Hot dogs are the street
food of choice for vendors because frankfurters are sold precooked and
therefore tend to undergo less scrutiny from state and city health
departments. They're also popular. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day,
Americans typically consume seven billion hot dogs, according to the
American Meat Institute's National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.

a very recession-proof business," says Kurt Horlacher, a former
sheet-metal worker who co-owns four hot-dog stands in Sarasota, Fla.,
with his wife, Renee, a former registered nurse.

The two say their
sales have increased 20% annually since they started two years ago, and
they plan to open three more stands later this year. Their eight
employees, who are paid $8 an hour, include laid-off professionals and
part-time workers looking to augment their earnings. "I get three to
five people applying for jobs each week," says Mr. Horlacher.

25% increase in year-over-year cart sales has prompted one manufacturer,
All American Hot Dog Carts Inc., to offer classes in how to succeed in
wiener work. Later this month, Hot Dog University will cover everything
from the right way to squirt mustard (in a swirling motion with a quick
flick of the wrist) to how to heat up buns (steam them over the dogs for
two minutes before serving).

[hot dog]

Then there's the art of the sell. "You
got to schmooze people," says Louie Di Raimondo, the Miami company's
founder and self-appointed hot-dog king.

A skilled cart dealer in a
pedestrian-heavy area can net up to $400 a day, say many vendors and
cart-company officials. Newer dealers and those in less-ideal locations
make one-third to half that amount. Weekend and event-only vendors, like
the Guajardos, say that when the weather is good, they too can turn a
hefty profit.

The Guajardos manage their two-wheeled
stainless-steel hot-dog cart just on weekends, from about 11 a.m. to 2
p.m., in this Texas Hill Country downtown dotted with hitching posts,
heavy-duty pickup trucks and cowboys leading cattle. They set up again
on Saturday nights outside local honky-tonks like the Longhorn Saloon.
They average $1,150 in take-home earnings each weekend selling roughly
400 dogs, plus drinks, chips and pickles. The couple's four children
often help out during the day.

"I tell them, 'Your mom's going to
pay for your college education with hot dogs," says Ms. Guajardo, while
directing her oldest son, 13-year-old Ben, to put some more cans of soda
and bottled water on ice. The business is named after another son,
6-year-old "Big Lou."

Before they started, "you could find a
flying frog easier than a hot-dog stand," said 75-year-old William Ellis
recently as he waited for a Chicago-style frankfurter, including neon
green relish and sport peppers atop a poppy-seed bun.

the Independent Street Blog

others, hot-dogging is a stopgap. Real-estate investor Marty
Katzenberger turned to it after the housing market tanked and he
couldn't sell any of his properties. "I found that I'm a little clumsy
with my hot dogs," says the 72-year-old, who withdrew $4,200 from his
retirement savings to get started at a Sarasota, Fla., beach resort. Mr.
Katzenberger, who generates an average of $150 in profits a day and
works five days a week, says he's considering moving to a new location
to boost his earnings further.

The work -- which requires hours of
standing -- can be quite an adjustment for people accustomed to sitting
behind desks at 9-to-5 jobs. There's also a lot of preparation and
cleaning involved.

jThen there's the growing competition. Many
small cities and towns have never had to worry much about enforcing laws
that limit the number of pushcarts -- until now.

Connie Means, a
former college math professor who owns four wiener stands in Gadsden,
Ala., recently encountered her first competition since starting her
business in 2003. It came from a husband and wife who had previously
sought her advice on becoming hot-dog vendors. "I tried to help them,"
says Ms. Means, who makes about $42,000 annually working six days a
week. "I didn't realize they were going to set up two or three blocks
from me."

Growing Competition

Gadsden officials say there
are more competitors on the way. The municipality of about 37,000 is now
considering changes to a vending ordinance that would require new carts
to be farther apart from one another. "They all want to be in a
four-block radius," says Shane Ellison, a city planner.

Jerry and Sandra Mottola ordered a $3,000 hot-dog cart online recently,
they discovered that there were only two available locations zoned for
the purpose in their hometown of Haverhill, Mass. A local hardware store
rejected the couple's request to set up on its property. Ultimately,
they scored an open spot near a courthouse, library and shopping plaza.

Mottola hopes his new business, Family Hot Dog, will supplement his
sagging income as a home contractor. "I'm creating my own stimulus
plan," he says. "I'm not waiting for the president."

Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

Guajardo was incorrectly identified as Ben Guajardo in a photo caption
accompanying a this article on hot-dog vendors.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal


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