John D'Alessandro isn't a businessman who dons a fancy suit. He wears an apron, and his office is under a shade tree on a downtown St. Petersburg street corner. His tools include tongs, buns, a steaming cart and an umbrella. The hot dog vendor has been selling frankfurters on street corners for more than 10 years. The former restaurant worker stumbled into the business after spotting a used food cart for sale. He shelled out $700 and found a new career — one in which he answers only to himself. He worked the streets in the late 1990s, during the hot dog wars when vendors battled for turf and restaurants resisted the sellers. He now spends 40 hours a week hawking dogs on the corner of Central Avenue and Third Street N.
He sets up his cart at 8 a.m. An hour later, he is ready for business. With more than two dozen restaurants nearby, D'Alessandro, 54, knows that thousands of downtown workers have plenty of other food choices.
Snagging patrons requires more than slapping a hot dog in a bun. A quality product, he said, hooks them.
"They want a fresh, soft roll and a hot meat," D'Alessandro said. "If you don't burn your mouth on it, it's free."
He sells the basic hot dog for 75 cents and offers combination meals with a soda and bag of potato chips for $2 and $3. His day starts at 5:30 a.m., buying 20 dozen buns at a bakery. He also buys his meat and vegetables daily from a wholesaler and grocery stores.
Chopping condiments and cooking chili comes next. He keeps only enough for the start of the day and cooks and chops more as he needs it. He wants his first customer at 9 a.m. to have the same quality food as a customer at 3 p.m.
Entering the business costs about $5,000. Carts average $3,500, and state, county and city licenses total $1,000, he said. D'Alessandro offered these tips to anyone who enters the mobile-food business:
"Just be polite; be clean," he said. "When someone walks up to my cart, I spring into action. That's how I am going to get paid today. It's good old-fashioned restaurant 101."
How much money do you typically make in a day?
There's no reason you can't make $200 to $400 on a eight-hour shift. It takes me 50 cents to earn a dollar. It's a double-your-money scenario. I don't have rent. I don't pay for electricity. I don't have employees. I don't deal with nickels, dime and pennies. Everything is rounded to a quarter, just like in bars. It's a simple business plan. A seventh-grader can figure this out. But you can't just sit back and expect this machine to spit out $20s. I believe in customer service. It's a dying art.
What is the hardest part of being a hot dog vendor in Florida?
The heat is the worst. I don't have air conditioning. For six months a year, I deal with humidity. That's why I like being under these trees. I am standing out here in the lightning and rain. I know it's hard work digging ditches, but I am standing here over an 1,800-BTU oven all day. I also don't have a bathroom I can just use. I have to lock my money up and get someone to keep an eye on the cart. Then I run across the street to Crowley's restaurant to use the bathroom.
Do any weird quirks come with the job?
You almost become a therapist for many customers. This is a busy street. Everybody wants a conversation. They feel more comfortable because I don't have any door stopping them like restaurants. There are no barriers to talking to me. People tell me everything. Sometimes it gets depressing hearing everybody's troubles. Look at him over there (pointing to a man crossing the street). I know he has been trying to get teeth for weeks. People just like talking when they come by.
How has the business changed since you first started?
There are a lot more homeless people asking for food. I saw the beginning before the recession started and way before the housing market crashed. How can I say no to a veteran who is missing a leg and fought for our country? Some people say I am just enabling them, but come on. I used to give a lot more food away, but I've had to stop some as the purse strings are getting tighter. I can't share it if I don't make it first. The restaurants have also changed their attitudes toward us. Years ago, they looked at us as eyesores. They didn't want us out there. Now they're including us in the conversations (about how to improve the area).
Do you work parades, festivals or any other events that draw large crowds?
I do. It's got to be an event where I earn a five with a couple zeros on the end. I like to do work for car dealerships. They throw money around like it's going out of style. They advertise free hot dogs for customers on the weekend. The best part about it is there is no cash exchanging hands with customers. If someone wants five hot dogs, I give them five hot dogs and keep a running total. I can do a week's worth of work in one day. I am not going to get rich doing this. I'm addicted to electricity. I'm keeping the lights on. I'm just trying to live. That's the best part of the deal: I'm making a good living. It's a wonderful feeling.
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.