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Business | State | Friday, July 23rd, 2010, 1:28 pm

Street food vendors stake claim to city sidewalks

D.S. MacLeod | Maine Observer
Joe Tucci sells a hot dog to a customer in Monument Square Tuesday. Tucci took over the hot dog stand after his brother-in-law died. Though he could make better money in the Old Port, Tucci says the cart has been there for 33 years and he won't move.

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D.S. MacLeod | Maine Observer
Perry Mogul sets up his hot dog cart last Tuesday on Portland's Commercial Street. Lori Hillier (background) arrived at his usual spot before he did. Mogul wants the city to allow food vendors to have established areas to prevent other vendors from poaching their business.

Perry Mogul got off to a late start Tuesday.

The hot dog cart vendor said he suffered an asthma attack in the morning and had to use a breathing machine to recover before he could come to work. He normally opens for business around 10 a.m. at his regular spot near the DiMillo’s entrance on Commercial Street. But on this day he was still settling in at around 1 p.m. — and he wasn’t happy about it.

Another vendor, Lori Hillier, who also runs a hot dog cart, had set up at his spot before he arrived.

“That’s a high-visibility spot. This spot where I am today — I call it an afterthought,” he said of the location he had moved to, which was roughly 30 feet away on the same stretch of sidewalk near the entrance to DiMillo’s. “Why can’t she find her own spot and establish herself?”

Hillier said she doesn’t like taking other people’s spots, but a cruise ship pulled in around 10 a.m., and Mogul hadn’t arrived by his usual time. She wasn’t going to miss out on the hordes of tourists walking by the area Perry calls his.

Most pushcart food vendors will tell you there’s an unspoken agreement among the 23 licensed sidewalk restaurateurs currently operating in Portland: Find a spot, stick with it, and no one will mess with you.

But this agreement can at times clash with the official stance of the city, which doesn’t recognize street cart vendors’ seniority. And some vendors say that competition, especially on Commercial Street, can get fierce.

“It’s first come first served. And the problem I have is, I could come and take someone’s spot, but I feel bad about it,” Hillier said. “Which, I shouldn’t, because the property is owned by the city and it’s my right as a vendor to take that spot. But ethically it’s hard for me.”

After he had set up and served a few customers, Mogul settled down a bit.

“Am I disappointed? Hell yeah. Am I mad? No,” said Mogul. “I’ll just have to get up earlier tomorrow.”

* * *

The license to operate a food cart in town costs $295, but application or renewal fees and health department inspections of the carts’ storage spaces bring to total up to around $500 annually. According to City Clerk Linda Cohen, while the number of carts in town rose more than 50 percent this year — from 15 to 23 — Portland hasn’t seen a trend of more food carts in town. The year before there were 25; the year before that there were 20.

But vendors on Commercial Street say there are now more carts on the busy waterfront thoroughfare than there used to be. And Mogul says the city should do something about the spot-stealing.

“There’s a situation in the city of Portland,” the flamboyant salesman said last week from the perch of his cart. Unlike other vendors, Moguls’ cart is jacked up off the ground, providing a sort of stage from which he can pontificate.

“Vendors used to operate ethically and morally, where people respect your territory where you set up to do business day in and day out,” he said. “If somebody gets here before I do tomorrow, technically in the city’s eyes it’s first-come-first-served. I think that’s a difficult way to do business,” he said.

“Portland has been very competitive; it’s a saturated market,” said Hillier. “In 2005 when I started I had a cart down by Casco Bay Lines. At that time there was one other vendor on Commercial Street. Now there’s five of us right here,” she said.

Since most vendors in Portland sell the same sort of street fare — mainly hot dogs and cold drinks — setting up in a key location with heavy foot traffic is often the best way to set yourself apart from the pack. And with 75,731 cruise ship passengers expected this season to spill onto Commercial Street — a new record, according to the city — competition can be fierce.

“When a ship comes to town, it’s a free-for-all on the waterfront and all the vendors scramble and everybody wants a piece of the tourists from the ship,” said Mogul.

But Mogul said the mad dash is for naught: Most cruise ship passengers eat for free on the boat. He says he doesn’t really sell much when ships dock at the nearby pier.

Jill Bourgeois, who this year started her first season running the Burger Boat a block down from Mogul, said she has had run-ins with other vendors in the past, but for the most part, people are reasonable.

“I’ve run into a couple situations where I got here and a person’s set up and there was no talking with her at all,” she said last week. “I think her reasoning was someone took her spot so she didn’t think it was a big deal for taking someone else’s spot.”

“When I first got into it, I thought it would be kind of like a nice low-key, no competition kind of thing, but I’m finding out that as your spot becomes a little more popular, people want to edge in and get there ahead of you,” she said.

To ensure she gets her spot, Bourgeouis said she gradually started arriving earlier and earlier. She used to arrive at 10 a.m.; now it’s closer to 8 a.m. “I’m actually doing breakfast sandwiches now,” she said.

* * *

To stop people from poaching profitable sidewalk spots, Mogul proposes that the city grant licenses to vendors to occupy certain areas based on seniority.

Mogul said he sent a proposal to Portland Mayor Nick Mavodones and Councilor Cheryl Leeman last March and again in April. But Mavodones said he has no record of ever receiving a letter from Mogul. “If there’s fierce competition or any problem, I’m not aware of it,” he said Monday.

Mavodones said he wouldn’t support any measure to give street vendors dibs on certain spots.

“I’m not sure how you would ever manage that and the amount of time it would take to try to manage such a process,” he said. “Some of the other establishments who pay a lot more for rent and licensing and things become concerned about people having their own location. It’s almost like renting a place.”

But at least one local politician is interested in revamping the street vendor ordinance. Dave Marshall, city councilor of District 2 said he plans to rework the ordinance to be more in line with how carts are actually enforced. Vendors are not allowed to operate in parks, for instance, but Marshall points out that Monument Square and Tommy’s Park — two well-known areas for food vendors — are parks by definition.

Marshall also said he’d be in favor of allowing carts to set up right next to each other in a line, similar to the thriving food cart scene in Portland, Oregon. “I don’t understand the logic in dispersing the carts. I’m not sure that the 65 foot rule between carts is appropriate,” he said.

Ron Gan of Skinny Cart BBQ agrees. He says he’d like to see a sort of “food cart food court” in Portland, possibly down on the pier, with an array of vendors offering different types of street fare.

Some vendors are dubious of Mogul’s idea. Phil McBride, who runs a cart on Marginal Way, said sanctioning spots based on seniority would bar new cart owners from competing.

“I wouldn’t agree with that,” he said Tuesday. “It makes it hard for people that are just starting.”

Veteran hot dog cart owner Mark Gatti has managed to maintain the same spot for 27 years. But he recalled the “cart wars” back in 2002, when he said police were often called to settle territorial disputes among street vendors.

“People would get there real early something 5 or 6 in the morning, so there were some battles and verbal battles and the cops were being called a lot,” he remembered.

Gatti said that, like any other business, the location of a food cart is integral to success. He’s been at the same location in Tommy’s Park in the Old Port for 27 years and has managed to make a living doing it.

“It takes a long time to build up a clientele,” he said. “I personally don’t think the city is big enough to support a lot of stands. If you need to make X amount or if you’re supporting a family or if you have a rent or a mortgage, it’s kind of a tough town to have a lot of stands for everyone to make that kind of money. I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

Gatti’s statements echo those of other vendors, who say there are too many people trying to sell the same thing. Of the five vendors who regularly operate on Commercial Street, four sell hot dogs.

Ari Muca started her first season selling hot dogs this summer. She works at Jen’s Hot Dogs, which has two carts on Commercial. She said she hasn’t clashed with other vendors, but the lack of variety of street food on the street can drive competition.

“I guess in previous years it hasn’t been as competitive because there wasn’t as many vendors,” she said. “It’s better if there’s more variety. I know there’s a bunch of people that sell hot dogs or chili dogs. If there’s another [cart] that’s selling the exact same stuff it gets awkward.”

* * *

Since the scene on Commercial Street can get tense, some vendors have staked out less contentious spots elsewhere in Portland.

McBride, who sells — you guessed it — hot dogs, sets up his cart on the corner of Marginal Way and Preble Street Extension. McBride said he’s tried out Commercial Street a couple of times, but there are just too many people. He said he doesn’t want to compete for tourists.

“I’d rather build relationships,” he said.

To be fair, most vendors said the same thing. But there’s a marked difference between McBride’s spot and Commerical Street: mainly, there are way less people.

Joe Tucci of Graffam’s Classic Hot Dogs in Monument Square said he’s never had a problem with people taking his spot, but then again, he has a lot of slow days.

Tucci said he’d probably do better if he was in the Old Port. But he has no plans to move. His cart, which he took over several years ago when his brother-in-law died, has been in the same spot for 33 years, he said. “When he passed on he wanted me to operate the cart,” at that location, he said.

“It’s just like a good soldier, you don’t leave your post, you stick right there,” he added.

D.S. MacLeod is editor of The Haul and a founding editor of the Observer.

One Response to “Street food vendors stake claim to city sidewalks”

  1. [...] the portland food-cart world has a shockingly vicious underbelly (ok, more like marginally passive aggressive underbelly, but still). [...]

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