Patricia Quintanilla has a ringside seat to hard times.
In Pasco County, where the economic engine is powered by the construction industry, her tiny window opens to the Port Richey Home Depot, a virtual playground for people who build stuff.
People still drop by, but not like they did when Quintanilla took over Dog-On-It from the previous owner five years ago. Back then, she could barely keep up with the shoppers ordering footlong hotdogs, hamburgers and fries. But then things got tight. She introduced a "dollar dog,'' $1.07 with tax. "Some people can't even afford that,'' she says. "It's so sad.''
But that's not why Quintanilla, 58, broke down in tears when I visited her last week. She fears for her livelihood after the county Code Enforcement Division gave her a warning notice on April 29. "Cease and desist,'' the official document screamed. They gave her seven days, then extended it to 30 so she could appeal.
Never mind the other forms posted on the wall of her enclosed kitchen — the state license and the Pasco County tax receipt. Never mind that she has been doing business for five years, or that some form of lunch stand has stood in the same place for as long as 20 years. Dog-On-It was not allowed in this neighborhood commercial zoning category, which does welcome such things as exterminating products storage, kennels, poultry and seafood stores and barbecue stands and pits. The county lists 21 acceptable uses for this category.
Quintanilla is fighting to make it 22. Her case will have ramifications for other similar food stands around the county.
• • •
So why now? At a time when the county's unemployment rate has never been higher, when the federal government is passing out stimulus money to create jobs, why shut down a licensed business that has been paying its bills and taxes?
Here's the answer:
Shortly before the inspectors dropped by the Home Depot, a man named Chris Giles asked Quintanilla how to get started in a similar business. She says she directed him to the county and that he was rejected because his plan didn't fit the zoning requirements. "So he asks, 'What about her?' " Quintanilla said, "and they told him they had never received a complaint. Before they could do anything, they had to receive a complaint. So he filed a complaint.''
I tried to call Giles, but a man who answered the phone said he wasn't around.
Quintanilla took off Friday to prepare a stack of documents for county commissioners, who will be asked to consider her case when they meet on May 25. She wants them to know this isn't a pull-cart hotdog stand, but rather an enclosed air-conditioned dwelling with a clean record at the health department. Like hundreds of similar food stands around the country, Dog-On-It contracts with a Minnesota company called Street Eats Limited, which cuts its own deal with stores like Home Depot and Lowe's.
Street Eats demands that vendors agree to a strict set of rules ranging from paying taxes to ensuring quality ingredients and cleanliness. Quintanilla said she pays Street Eats monthly, with the amount depending on how much food and drink she sells. This, too, has given her an appreciation for the recession, as she used to pay $1,100 a month and lately has paid $550. She is required to keep tax receipts to demonstrate her sales.
"When times were good,'' she said, "I cleared about $600 a week. Now it's more like $400.''
She recently found a cheaper rate for liability insurance and says she is barely able to make the mortgage payment on her small house in Holiday.
"If I lose my stand,'' she cried, "I will lose my house.''
• • •
Challenge is nothing new to Quintanilla. Her father died when she was 13 in Los Angeles, and her mother sent her to El Salvador to be near family. Quintanilla's dyslexia and other learning disabilities made school difficult, and she dropped out. She married at 16 and had three of her four children by age 19. She eventually left her husband and cleaned houses in southern California to support the family. "I put three of my children through two years of college,'' she said proudly. "And my oldest son is an ordained minister.''
Quintanilla has developed a loyal set of customers at Dog-On-It. As she takes their orders, she uses several terms of endearment — honey, sweetheart, darling. A small CD player entertains customers with oldies as they sit on redwood picnic tables.
For all of her fretting, it seemed on Friday that she had gotten the attention of more than just some newspaper columnist. Debra Zampetti, the county's chief zoning official, said she has been studying this case and the standards that Street Eats sets for such food stands. While commissioners aren't likely to tweak their zoning ordinance to allow a bunch of new pull-cart vendors, Zampetti said they might go for something that would protect concessions at buildings with 100,000 or more square feet.
Quintanilla is optimistic. But then she looks down on that warning notice: Cease and desist.
"Those words scare me,'' she says. "I'm frightened for my livelihood. I need this job.''