A third-generation hot dog vendor struggles to turn a profit in a markedly changed Manhattan, but holds tight to the old family business.
Maria Laskaris presses the red button on her hot dog cart to light the propane stove, and the clicking sound reverberates onto Water Street. The flood ransacked the seaport, and when it retreated it sucked up the sounds of this place and drowned them in the harbor. Sunglass Hut is closed. Seaport Tattoos is closed. The line of FedEx trucks, UPS trucks, cabs and black Lincolns usually double-parked in front of One Seaport Plaza, the thirty-four story office tower across the street, is gone, and the tower’s windows are dark.
“It’s like working on a deserted island,” Laskaris says, staring out at the empty block in the South Street Seaport neighborhood on Manhattan’s southeastern shore, which was inundated by Hurricane Sandy. “This is no way to make a living.”
Back when the tourists came, they wanted more than hot dogs. They wanted tomatoes, lettuce, white sauce and chicken for their gyros and kebabs. Since Sandy and the flood, the tourists stay away. At night Laskaris throws her unsold meat, sauce and chopped vegetables in the trash.
“I’m not even making enough money to pay for what I throw out each day,” she says as she wraps five frozen Gabila’s potato knishes in squares of tin foil and lays them on the hotplate. “The only reason I keep coming is to keep my spot claimed. I established this spot, and I didn’t take it from anybody.”
Her spot is a corner shaded by an office building’s portico and cooled by wind off the river. She claimed it in 1986, back when the sidewalks near South Street Seaport got so packed with tourists she could hardly move. The tourists sustained her as New York’s hot dog business moved on. At the time, most vendors bought their own food and supplies and owned their own carts, which they stored in Manhattan close to their spots. Today, after decades of spiraling Manhattan rents and changes to the business, many vendors rent their carts, which they park overnight in large warehouses called commissaries in Queens. The commissaries require them to buy all their supplies from the commissary store, which the vendors accuse of inflating prices. They are sharecroppers in all but name.
Laskaris is one of few remaining independent, Manhattan-based cart owners. She shares a suspicion, common among street vendors, of cops, health inspectors, and anyone who asks too many questions.
“Why do you need to know my age?” she asks a reporter.
She is the last defender of a business that has sustained her family for four generations, of a little patch of concrete she does not own.
“This is ridiculous,” she says. “I just hope I can hold on.”
* * *
The Toyota Camry driver wants to turn right. He’s blocked by a dump truck and two delivery vans trying to get onto the Brooklyn Bridge. The vans can’t get past the cars coming down Frankfort Street, which in turn can’t move because of three taxis inching toward the onramp of the northbound FDR, all of whom have driven the traffic cop in the yellow vest to drop her red batons and take a break on the sidewalk.
Right into the middle of this mess trots Maria Laskaris, walking beside her two-ton hot dog cart. She’s taking up the entire center lane of Pearl Street, and she does not stop. The cart has a button on a thick electrical cord that engages a battery-powered motor to turn the rear axle. Laskaris keeps her thumb on the button and the rear wheels spin forward.
The Camry driver twists his hands on the steering wheel like he’s trying to strangle it. No one speeds around her, and no one honks.
“This is very dangerous!” Laskaris says. “I do this every day. Can you believe it?”
It’s twenty blocks from the garage on Forsyth Street in Chinatown, where Laskaris parks her cart at night, to her spot by the seaport. Her right leg drops on every step, the result of a recent injury. So she limps beside her cart, in traffic, through the middle of the street, downhill to work and uphill back. To turn right she presses her shoulder to the stainless steel paneling and pushes with all her weight; to turn left she grabs a bar bolted to the front and pulls. Both maneuvers take some time. Laskaris is five foot four, and the cart is over six feet tall. If she danced salsa with a comatose linebacker, the effect would be the same.
“You really have to be in tune with the cart,” she says.
The morning commute wasn’t always so brutal. In the 1940s, John Sfiris, Laskaris’s great uncle, owned a garage downtown at the corner of Broad and William Streets. He stored his hot dog cart there at night, and in the mornings he pushed it two blocks west to his spot by the Custom House. Another great uncle earned enough selling hot dogs to buy a house on Staten Island.
“My mother got jealous that he was making all this money, and she insisted that he buy her a hot dog stand” in 1948, says Tom Laskaris, Maria’s brother.
Their mother, Areti Vasiliou, claimed a spot one block south of her uncle’s. In the afternoons they sold hot dogs and cold sodas to people in cars waiting to board the Staten Island Ferry. Areti returned to her family’s home in Greece, where she married her childhood sweetheart, Alexandros Laskaris. In 1952, she brought him back to New York.
“Within two weeks she had him selling hot dogs, too,” Tom says. “My mother did not mess around.”
In dimes and quarters, the money came in. Areti bought a brand-new house in Astoria, Queens, for $60,000. She paid half the cost upfront, in cash. Alex bought his own six-family apartment building in Queens.
Eventually John Sfiris sold his garage, which was demolished to make way for 85 Broad Street, the office tower that became the longtime headquarters of Goldman Sachs. Sfiris profited from the deal, but he sold too early to benefit from the Manhattan real estate boom that came later. After that, the family bounced around. They rented storage space inside the old Seamen’s Church Institute across from the ferry terminal, which later was developed into the 1 New York Plaza office building. By the early 1980s, rising rents pushed them north to the Fulton Fish Market, in an old garage that later became an Ann Taylor store.
“We could have bought that building in the 1970s for peanuts. My dad said ‘Nah, we don’t need it,’” Maria says. “We’d be millionaires.”
They pushed their carts through the crumbling streets. Carts then had large-diameter wooden wheels, often made by Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania. They operated on the wheelbarrow principle, with two long wooden handles serving as levers to lift and push. In summer they carried so much ice and soda the wheels sank into the melting asphalt. Tom Laskaris, 58, keeps a black-and-white photo of his mother pushing a later version of her cart back to the garage in winter. Bundled against the cold, trudging down a blighted street, she looks more like a figure from the Great Depression than a successful businesswoman in 1985.
“The neighborhood there was falling apart,” Tom says. “But it was the only place we could find. As real estate became more and more valuable, our depots became farther and farther away from our spots.”
Tom and Maria grew up helping their parents on the streets, watching the carts and running for change. But they both had different plans. Tom was a professional dancer for twelve years, studying at the Alvin Ailey school and the School of American Ballet and performing at the American Ballet Theatre and Germany’s Theater am Goetheplatz. Maria attended the School of Visual Arts, designed magazines and became an assistant art director at Citibank.
Then Tom married. He had a daughter and needed money, so his mother gave him her cart. Next Alexandros became ill. Maria decided she needed to keep the business going. She would work all day at the bank, change into warm clothes and her vendor’s apron, take her father’s cart and sell hot dogs at night.
“We’re both artists, but we got pulled back into the family business,” says Tom.
Maria used her father’s old baseball bat to crush blocks of ice, and loved it. Her brother and cousins were all around, working street corners. Eventually she quit the bank.
“It got too much to do both,” Laskaris says. “Tommy regrets that my mother let me get into the business. I wish I had stayed with what I studied.”
Today a new cart costs around $15,000. To stay current with city health regulations, Maria may need to buy a new one soon, or retrofit her old one with a bigger water tank, a wastewater tank and two sinks instead of one. The batteries that power her cart cost $250 apiece and last four months. The costs have risen over time, but the basic economics haven’t changed: If you stay in the hot dog business too long, your primary asset will be road dirt in your lungs.
“It’s a great cash business, but there’s no equity in it,” Tom says of hot dogs. “You don’t own the land. The cart depreciates. You should get in it, make your money and get out of it fast.”
Tom used hot dog cash to buy his way out. He purchased a row house in Park Slope, and in 1992 he bought a delivery route selling Thumann’s deli meat to bodegas. Today, he delivers Pepperidge Farm cookies.
Maria stayed in. The seaport mall was booming, and new bars and shops in the neighborhood attracted crowds. After the Black Monday stock market crash of October 1987, thousands of downtown office workers were laid off and never returned. Maria lost many regular customers, making her more dependent on the seasonal tide of tourists. Meanwhile, as Tom and other family members stopped selling hot dogs, the vendors who took their spots worked on a different business model. Many rented their carts. Rising real estate prices forced small garages in Manhattan to close, so vendors moved to the commissaries in Queens.
If you stay in the hot dog business too long, your primary asset will be road dirt in your lungs.
Vendors bought minivans and pickups to get into Manhattan, welding hitches to their carts and removing the electric motors, which would burn up if pulled down the road. Speed and scale became as important as maintaining a consistent crop of regular customers. People who bought up multiple carts started driving them into Manhattan on flatbed trucks.
Vendors who rent overnight storage space in commissaries must also agree to buy all their supplies from the commissary store.“I don’t like people telling me I have to buy from them,” Laskaris says. “Plus they charge too much anyway.”
Tarek Essa bought a commissary last fall on 49th Street on the western edge of Midtown. The rear wall is lined with gallon jugs of ketchup, tubs of pre-cut onions and big sloshing plastic bags of yellow sauerkraut. The space is 3,000 square feet, and at night it holds thirty carts. But Essa doesn’t let anyone talk to his vendors.
“If I’m not there, I worry that they’ll complain,” he says. “They always complain that I charge too much.”
Working with a commissary may cost more, but it has advantages. Rather than driving all over the city for provisions, vendors get everything they need from one place. The J & M Foods depot on West 50th Street goes through 700 pounds of hot dogs every two days and buys $3,000 worth of paper goods a week, said a man named Mike, a co-owner who refused to give his last name. The company’s larger depot in Queens moves even more. (Though many commissaries have moved to Queens, a few large ones remain in Manhattan.)
Commissary-based vendors also pull together to protect turf. City licenses cover health and sanitary codes, and traffic laws bar vendors from parking in certain places, but otherwise government agencies do not regulate where vendors operate. The code for pioneering and keeping a spot is thus informal and rigidly enforced. Whoever claims one first keeps seniority until he or she moves, retires or dies.
Anyone caught horning in on a spot claimed by someone else will quickly find her life made miserable. Threats of physical violence are not uncommon, Mike says. If someone challenges one of Mike’s corners, he sends two of his vendors to park carts on either side of the interloper and instructs them to cut their prices to 50 cents per dog.
“I have all the product, so let’s go,” says Mike. “We’ll see who runs out first.”
Laskaris tried to claim a new spot after 9/11, when the seaport neighborhood was largely shut down and foot traffic was sparse. She was quickly pushed out. All she will say of it now is that “I got into a tiff with somebody. There’s no other spots.”
These days Laskaris is even more on her own than before. Over a dozen vendors once stored their carts in the garage on Forsyth Street. Many retired or found cheaper rent in Queens, leaving only four carts behind and most of the space empty. The garage is three dark rooms lit by a single bank of hanging fluorescent tubes, with a dusty tire pump by the door and the whiff of old hot dog buns.
“I don’t know how long this garage will be here. The rent is so high we can barely afford it,” she says. “If this place closes, I really have a problem.”
Here is the sink where Laskaris chops her peppers and onions. She stocks the refrigerators with number-8’s, which means there are eight hot dogs per one-pound bag. Other vendors sell 14’s, which are so skinny they resemble beef jerky sticks. Since she doesn’t have regular customers, Laskaris could sell the cheaper dogs and get away with it. She chooses not to. Laskaris buys her meat and paper goods from the same suppliers her brother and parents used.
“My sister is the last of the Mohicans,” Tom says. “She is just like my mother. Stubborn.”
Beside the faded color photos of gyros and Sabrett hot dogs that decorate the outside of her cart, Laskaris hangs her own handmade signs. Hot dog buyers have little use for design, and she does not waste her artistic talents on them. This winter she made one with black magic marker on cardboard that read:
2 Hot Dog
Wow! Plus Wow!
* * *
Laskaris stands on her corner, the one she claimed, and waits. Her cart is twice as big as her mother’s; the only thing they have in common are their steel sides and Pepsi umbrellas poking out of the top, folded up and skinny like trees in winter. The family resemblance grows stronger on Laskaris, who, like her mother, is wrapped in so many layers she resembles an old-world peasant, her cheeks red from the wind.
She has a milk crate and a bucket she can use for stools, but customers don’t stop if she sits. So she stands. She looks down Fulton Street at the yellow dumpsters parked on the cobblestones. Business took a little hit when the Fulton Fish Market closed in 2005. The mall next door aged poorly. Its trendier stores closed, replaced by shops like Christmas in New York, which sells wooden nutcracker tree ornaments for $9.99. People who pay $23 for the roasted half chicken provencal with ratatouille and crispy potatoes at Stella Manhattan Bistro a block away have little interest in tubes of processed meat served in casings and delivered on white-bread buns.
Then came Hurricane Sandy. The flood surge crossed South Street and swept through Schermerhorn Row. Laskaris’s spot, two blocks from shore, took nearly a foot of water. The mall stayed dry on its elevated pier, but many restaurants, shops and museums in the neighborhood were destroyed. Months later the air tastes sour, and floating particulates of mud, mold and junked drywall scratch the throat. Most people walking around are construction workers sporting jeans dusted with white and cloth masks hanging loosely from their faces.
“This is ridiculous,” she says. “I just hope I can hold on.”
“Every day I take my cart out, I risk my life to get here,” she says. “Even at $500 a day, which I never make, is it worth it?”
A construction worker walks up and asks for a hot dog. “How you doin’, darling? Grilled or boiled?” Laskaris says. “That’s one thing that distinguishes me, because a lot of people like their dogs grilled.”
The construction worker says boiled with mustard and ketchup is fine. He doesn’t go for the special. He digs two dollar bills from the front pocket of his jeans and hands them to Laskaris. It’s 1:30 in the afternoon. She smiles. She’s made her first sale of the day.
* * *
Christopher Maag is based in New York. He’s written about smart people doing dumb things for The New York Times, TIME, Salon, Popular Mechanics, and other fine places.
Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.