Long before the 21st century mobile food renaissance, hot dog carts were a fixture on city streets. A successful hot dog cart business draws on this long tradition of fast, easy, affordable fare, whether it caters to high school athletes at school sporting events or food aficionados at mobile dining events. Whether you take a traditional or innovative approach to hot dog cart vending, your success will depend on developing a menu that's right for your target market, and building your business over time through consistency and word of mouth.
Planning a Menu
Although hot dog carts sell essentially the same food whether they cater to elementary school athletes or courthouse lawyers, they may dress or season their dogs differently depending on their target market. They may come topped with cream cheese, melted Swiss cheese, or cole slaw. You may choose to offer different sizes for different appetites or a dog made with grass-fed beef from a local farm. Consider your market when planning your menu, including both regional specialties and offerings targeted to market niches such as vegan or kosher options.
Outfitting Your Cart
The cart is the most important piece of equipment for your hot dog cart business, heating and cooling food to safe temperatures efficiently. Comply with local health department regulations when outfitting your cart, making sure it has required equipment such as a sink for washing hands. Your cart is also a valuable marketing tool. A cart with plenty of chrome that you shine diligently projects an image of cleanliness and care, rising above the stereotype of hot dog carts as barely regulated street food. A cart decorated with clever, playful sports memorabilia can act as a conversation piece, drawing attention and business at sporting events.
Location can make or break a hot dog cart business. You're more likely to succeed in front of a ballfield than next to an opera house, although your cart may thrive at upscale locations if you offer upscale hot dogs. Approach the owners of properties and businesses where you would like to vend, offering a percentage of sales or a fixed fee such as $50 per day, depending on the volume of foot traffic. Contact your local transportation and revenue agencies for information about permits, fees and licensing for vending in public places such as parks. When choosing spots, also consider logistics such as ease of loading and unloading.
Unlike upscale restaurants with rotating menus based on seasonal ingredients, hot dog carts offer consistent, accessible staples. Even if you offer gourmet dogs featuring changing, innovative toppings, you'll likely spread these condiments on a few basic types of hot dog. Develop a dependable core group of menu options, rotate your inventory to maintain its quality and give your employees plenty of practice to build their grilling and hot dog dressing skills, ensuring that your customers receive a satisfying and tasty product each time they buy from your cart.
Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.