In 1988, I sold Creative Photo, my beloved Western Massachusetts camera store / portrait studio / custom framing shop to a customer with both too much money and not enough common sense (who then proceeded to run it…and my heart…into the ground in less than two years). Having fallen out of love with photography as a profession and with the advent of One Hour film processing and digital media changing the landscape of the photography industry I also watched the erosion and ambiance of the downtown storefronts of Westfield, Massachusetts…I wanted out and persistent nagging by a customer to sell her the business was just the opportunity after being offered far…far…too…much money for Creative Photo. Next, I did what any other professional photographer would do as a logical career advancement – I bought a Hot Dog cart.
A friend operated a successful cotton candy concession business and I was intrigued by the thought of a cash-based entrepreneurial opportunity. Besides, I had no other short term plans for income. So, I found a beautiful, stainless steel New York City-style push cart, but it had steel wheels that could not be towed behind a vehicle. So I found an old snow mobile trailer and with the help of a close friend, fabricated sturdy wooden sides and a storage area into the trailer frame. Clearly, you must be picturing this shiny metal cart nestled in its bright orange and white snowmobile trailer gliding down the roads of Western Massachusetts behind some kind of appropriately – matched towing vehicle, right? Well, my vehicle at the time was a sweet, pearl silver / green Saab 900S, so your confidence in me is be sorely mistaken. Once business, fire marshal and health department permits were secured, Jims Dogs, was legit. Thus began the awesome and odd chapter of my hot dog – slinging years and the memorable sights and smells of this vehicular anomaly. The master plan was to offer the highest possible quality meats as well as sodas and chips in both daytime and late night operating hours. So, I selected a gravel pull-off area on Interstate Route 20 at the town line connecting Westfield and Russell, Massachusetts for daytime operational hours. This pull off was adjacent to the Westfield River and Route 20 was frequented by locals, fishermen, campers and long-haul truck drivers avoiding the tolls of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
So, for almost two weeks…and sporting my sporty new appearance including a scruffy beard and crew cut…nothing happened. Well, to say nothing happened – I mean no income happened. I’d stand on the side of the road, smiling at cars while trying to project confidence and pride as hundreds of cars and trucks an hour would zoom past. I’d make eye contact with people – some I recognized from my photography days – and I could almost hear their thoughts of “Wait, isn’t that the local photographer guy?” or “What in the world must have happened so tragically in that guys’ life that he is now standing on the side of the road selling hot dogs?” So, I went from being a well-known and respected downtown business owner to a guy that smelled like onions and sauerkraut. Finally, it happened! One day before noon, a big tractor trailer approached from the East, put on his right turn signal, slowed down and pulled into the gravel area I inhabited. Out from the cab slung the truck driver who, after hitching up his pants, walked up to me and said dryly, “I’ve been driving by you every day for two weeks and never seen anyone stop. Are your hot dogs any good?”
I proceed to introduce him to Blue Seal, the brand of Chicopee Provisions meats in the steamer. I explained the advantages of these eight-to-a-pound natural casing hot dogs…(snap dogs, they called them) …the first three ingredients being beef, pork, veal. I showed him the spicy sausage, the kielbasa dogs, the fresh chili I made every morning from scratch. He said, “Alright. Give me two dogs, mustard and onions…and hey, do you have any celery salt?” I shook my head, never having heard of celery salt…apparently celery salt on dogs is a “thing” in New Hampshire where he hails from. I assured him that I’d have it tomorrow if he’d come back the next time he was this way. So, capitalizing on customer requests, the condiment choices expanded from the typical catsup, mustard, relish, kraut, chili and cheese to include celery salt, adobo powder, Cheese Whiz, local horseradish and whatever else customers asked for. I’ll never forget that first truck stopping by and one became two and then the business took off.
After a full Summer of running my cart during the day, college season was about to start. I knew a guy that owned a few Subway restaurants and he was opening up a college bar in downtown Westfield named Gabby’s. As they offered no food, I asked for and was given their encouragement to set up on the sidewalk in front of Gabby’s to offer food to his drunken college kids….I mean bar customers. In short order, my night time business eclipsed daytime sales as drunken college kids can pound down plenty of dogs. And that’s just the girls…..On nights where temps were at 1 degree or higher, I’d set up on the sidewalk around 10PM and stay until after the bars closed at 2AM. Those three years of selling dogs outside of Gabby’s generated sights, sounds and memories that will last a lifetime. Before I share a few, keep in mind that both local and state police as well as Gabby’s bartenders and bouncers loved me. The cops knew me from Creative Photo and now, I kept the beat cops company when they were bored. On nights in front of Gabby’s, I’d call police dispatch around midnight and ask them if the dog watch shift wanted any food. As the answer was always Yes and Thank You, they’d send a patrol cruiser down, I’d hook them up with 10-20 assorted treats and send them on their way. With the bouncers, I traded chili and cheese dogs who’d hook me up with gin and tonics. So, I’d be out on the sidewalk yapping with the police while casually sipping a G &T in a red solo cup, selling hot dogs to drunken people. I was having an absolute blast.