Bacon-wrapped hot dog vendors lose customers when they go legit

The Board of Supervisors recently voted to open up new territory to the city's growing culture of food trucks, and streamlined the permit process for those with multiple truck locations. While this means fewer headaches for those peddling tacos or crepes, one constituency will likely remain under the table: the Mission's vendors of bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

State law requires the food peddlers to get a trailer that can cost up to $45,000 (the equivalent of 15,000 sizzling franks) instead of the bacon dog purveyors' current propane-powered-cookie-sheets-on-wheels contraptions, which lure bar-goers in swarms.

But this isn't just a money issue. As Lucero Muñoz Arellano has learned, Missionites simply don't want to buy hot dogs from a legal trailer.

Last May, Muñoz — a hearty, entrepreneurial-minded woman from Mexico — went from an unpermitted hot dog vendor dodging the police to legit queen of the scene. She took over the neighborhood's first permitted trailer parked at the 24th Street BART plaza after the owner's wife had tired of staffing it.

Muñoz could relax while cooking up hot dogs from inside the silver trailer with permits posted in the window. There was just one problem: no customers. “They didn't smell them,” she says. “It whets your appetite.” Some days she'd earn only $40 — far less than when she sold illegally.

So after two weeks, she rolled her old illegal cart right in front of the food truck and turned on the propane tank. The fancy trailer became mostly a backdrop. It was the best of both worlds — the permit from the truck, but the visible grill (and the smells) people expect. Her business shot up to $150 on a good day.  

Customers want authenticity, says Caleb Zigas, the director of La Cocina, an incubator kitchen in the Mission that helps illegal food vendors go legit. “The reason you buy a bacon-wrapped hot dog off the street is they're gritty, and there's nothing gritty about pretty machines,” he says. Still, Zigas has been discussing a rent-to-own hot dog truck program with the mayor's office. “It's less of a risk,” he says, than the illegal carts: “It just takes one person to sell well off that equipment to convince everybody else to do it.”

Muñoz says the city inspectors are okay with her hybrid setup, and the police even congratulate her. Instead of hiding, she has now posted a 10-foot “Hot Dogs” banner over the silver truck behind her cart. Sometimes people ask if she's hiring. 

There's only been one drawback to going legit: Other vendors have gotten jealous. “It's no longer the same friendship there was before,” she says with sadness. To compete, some vendors without trucks have started selling hot dogs at $2.50 a pop instead of her $3. “People say, 'Why don't you call the police on them?' And I can't — that was me before.”

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