ST. PETERSBURG — "American Dream,'' Joel Goetz says when he answers the phone.
His voice is as smooth and sweet as brown mustard, husky with the tang of 20 years in a kosher deli. In the next hour, he fields 13 more calls from people who want a bite of the dream he's peddling: a new hot dog cart.
In hard times, the appeal of low-cost self-employment soars — and a tiny stainless steel restaurant on two wheels gleams.
In Florida, more than 150 umbrellas opened over hot dog carts in the last fiscal year, boosting the number of approved vendors from 561 to 721, the largest total ever.
At All-American Hot Dog Carts in Miami, the country's largest maker, 2008 sales are breaking records. The company is on pace to turn out 1,000 this year after making about 900 in 2007.
"It's been growing every year,'' says Louie Di Raimondo, who told his success story in the book I'm on a Roll.
Even a Wall Street Journal business advice columnist got a query from a 23-year-old dreaming of a chain of carts: ''People laugh when they first hear of it. … Is this a good step for a first-time businessman?"
"Let them laugh,'' the columnist wrote, then turned to Don Cowan, who sells carts of all sizes from Methuen, Mass. His how-to manual, Start Your Business In 10 Easy Steps: Operating Your Hot Dog Cart Tips, sells from his Web site (thehotdogcart.com) for $50, refundable if you buy a cart. His business is up too, he says.
Location is crucial
Hunger for startup carts is so great that Goetz, who owns Jo-El's deli in St. Petersburg, decided to make carts himself. He set up a new business and Web site (americandreamhotdogcarts.com) this year to promote them.
He assures the first caller, George from Connecticut, that the cart he ordered will ship out Friday as promised, but George wanted the dream yesterday.
"They start to see spots,'' Goetz says — not hallucinations, but places where they'll hand out dogs and haul in cash.
Location, always crucial, has changed as the high-foot-traffic street corner has disappeared from posturban America. The prized spots are outside Home Depot and Lowe's. There, the vendor gets all-day hot dog eaters, from contractors to Saturday-project families with tag-along kids, plus employees who want on-site lunches.
"My people are everywhere,'' Goetz says. "Some just do catering, bank openings, car sales, new subdivision homes and birthday parties."
Some innovators set up at night, even around topless bars. "The clubs can't have food if they let people smoke. This way the patrons can get something to eat without leaving the property.''
To sell on public property, vendors rarely pay rent but must get city or county permits. On private property, space for a cart could be a no-cost handshake deal or a complicated lease with commissions and monthly rents of hundreds of dollars. Getting cart space at big box stores is now an industry of its own.
"'There is no million-dollar street corner any more," warns Josh Meyer of Woody's Hot Dogs in Colorado, which is at many Lowe's stores in the West and has 60 franchisees. Street Eats Ltd., a division of Best Vendors in Minnesota, has connected more than 700 vendors to Home Depot and other retail locations.
Wherever the cart, the numbers start small: a couple of bucks a dog, so many dogs an hour, as much time as you want to put in. But it can add up to $40,000 or more a year.
"Like any business, you have to be patient," said Tony Brooks, who has a new American Dream cart. That patience was tried during his first week, with cloudbursts most days.
Brooks moved to Tampa from Virginia, where he was a truck driver and owner of a small trucking firm. As gas prices rose, he had to start anew.
Like many new vendors he picked a nontraditional site to start, in the parking lot of Ernie Haire Ford in Tampa, selling to sales people, mechanics and customers.
Retired respiratory technician Jerry Gename got his cart from Goetz delivered to Scottsbluff in western Nebraska in April.
Gename now wears neon yellow and red instead of scrubs and works in front of two large office buildings during the week and a car wash near Wal-Mart on Saturday. He just finished the annual Oregon Trail Days. "Made $1,200 there.'' He has indoor quarters for winter.
Goetz started selling franks wholesale to Tampa Bay's first blush of T-back vendors in the early '90s. This year he linked up with Clearwater welder and fabricator Doug Calibey and started building carts.
Now 10 push carts a week roll out of Calibey's shop, at $2,000 and up. They're all tagged with the buyers' names, customized for their tastes (flat top grill? ice shaver?) and health codes.
This new vehicle of economic recovery is small but not so simple. They have elaborate gas, electric and water pipes, and must also survive highway towing and nightly washing.
Goetz and Calibey added thicker stainless steel, electric water pumps, more display space and roadworthy suspension. They wanted carts to meet coming advances in health codes and to have "street integrity.''
From cart to kitchen
Verdun Manross of St. Petersburg is a former chef who also sold foreclosure homes for banks. Now he has a hot dog cart and plans for a take-out kitchen in a gas station.
"When I was in real estate, everyone argued about the price all the time," he says. "Not with hot dogs. It's just a good relationship.''
Chris Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8585.