Andrew Coppolino takes a frank look at resilience of local hot dog carts

More than a decade ago, hot dog carts were much more visible around Waterloo region. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino takes a look at who is operating hot dog carts now and what they're doing to entice customers, from classic street meat to gluten-free buns and halal and organic options.

'Construction workers are some of our best repeat customers,' says Lesley Rito of Joey Doggs

Man stands behind silver counter and black BBQ. A sign behind him says "cash only - you can take cash back from the store."
Les Halat is a 27-year veteran of the hot dog stand business. He owns a cart at K-W Surplus on Victoria Street in Kitchener and in Waterloo's Frobisher business area and says he's definitely seen a decrease in sales in recent years. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Often called "street meat," the classic grilled and scored hot dog or sausage-on-a-bun from the silver cart at the curb has seen declining numbers in Waterloo Region over the last several years.

Currently, 12 hot dog carts are licensed in Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo, but during the "golden years" there were many more, says Les Halat, who owns a cart at K-W Surplus on Victoria Street in Kitchener and in Waterloo's Frobisher business area.

Halat has been grilling "tube steaks" for 27 years and says the golden age was 2000-2012. As it did for many businesses, the pandemic has further slowed down slinging dogs, according to Halat.

"It's probably 40 per cent slower this year," he says.

In the parking lot at Swanson's Home Hardware on Park Street, Halat's daughter Anna has worked her cart (which she calls "K-W's Best Sausage Carts" on Instagram) since 2018, although she took some time away during the pandemic.

She says carts she once knew were working are now nowhere to be found, adding that she can count the decline from when she was a kid.

Young woman stands behind the counter of a hot dog cart where a sign advertises 'jumbo all beef hot dogs $5 or Oktoberfest sausages $6.
Anna Halat and her hot dog cart are pictured at her hardware store location on Park Street in Kitchener. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"I remember when my mom and stepfather started this business. They used to be set up in uptown Waterloo and there were about five hot dog carts fairly close to one another. They were all making pretty good money. Over time, they had to close for lack of business," she says.

Simple, quick food

While they follow similar city licensing and fire department and health-unit regulations as food trucks, hot dog carts don't have the reach into big festivals and crowded events that the trucks do: they rely on being part of the surrounding urban geography.

Two men stand in front of a hot dog cart. The silver cart has a red umbrella above it and is located in a parking lot with trees in the background.
Customers wait for their hot dogs at Anna Halats cart. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

I just love their urban quality. The carts grill simple, grab-and-go fare in which people indulge between shopping errands: you spy a cart in a retail plaza and munch down a dog before you head to your next stop. They're quick, inexpensive and delicious.

Despite the slump, there are new local stands and a cart that have opened eager to refresh the small sector and add offer a few unique foods. 

This past week, Geoff Nash opened Super Street Meat in the Caroline Street area of uptown Waterloo. Calling it a side gig to his real job, Nash says he just loves food and loves the classic hot dog cart.

"They were missing from the scene, drastically and everywhere. They've really disappeared," Nash says.

He adds that it's difficult to get permission to operate on private property: "You need to swing a deal," he says.

Licensing regulations are partly responsible too, he adds, as is human nature: the carts have traditionally only taken cash — "And people don't carry cash with them as much," he says.

E-transfers and long hours

That, in part, is mitigated by cart operators accepting e-transfers, as Anna Halat does, or Interac.

Joey Doggs Certified Street Meats is another new stand located in a parking lot at the corner of Weber Street and Kinzie Avenue. The plaza owner had always wanted a street-meat venue, so Joey Doggs appeared in April, according to manager Lesley Rito.

A young woman stands behind a hot dog cart with a bright teal umbrella and a sign in front says "Yes" they accept debit cards.
Some hot dog carts, like Joey Doggs, offer Interac to make it easier for people to pay for a quick bite. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"We're open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.," Rito said. "But it is a weather-dependent business."

While most of us dislike the delays caused by construction in an area, it's good for hot dog stands, she notes.

"Construction workers are some of our best repeat customers," Rito said.

Gluten-free, halal and organic options

Near Chicopee, Hot Cart Grill opened in May. Building a small patio with a barbecue, entrepreneur Sean Silva owns the building where it sits, like Joey Doggs.

It's Silva's passion project, though from a business perspective it made sense within the surrounding food desert.

A wooden pergola is over a hot dog cart, which is behind a large sign that says "hot cart" and it offers various options for food and drink.
The Hot Cart Grill on King Street E. in Kitchener offers some different options, including Polish, spicy Italian, fiesta or honey garlic sausages as well as organic sausages and hot dogs and gluten free buns. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

"There wasn't any street vendor in the area," says Silva. "I remember visiting carts at big box stores, but this is more than just selling food on the side of the street."

To address a range of diets, his cart offers gluten-free buns, halal meats and organic sausages. "We have different products, including potato salad and ice cream for the kids. We're catering to different people looking for different options."

With his Sri Lankan background, Silva says he's looking to add foods from diverse cultures in the future.

"For now, the masala-curry sausage is popular," he says. "Overall, the response from the community has been good."

Hot dog carts about community

In fact, hot dog carts, like food trucks, are about community, according to Anna Halat; she cites the loyal following who cross Park Street to her stand from the Cherry Park neighbourhood. 

A hand holds tongs to move a hot dog on a barbecue with flames.
Anna Halat cooks hot dogs. She has worked at her cart since 2018, although she took some time away during the pandemic. (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

I observed her working hard for her customers in the heat of the sun and the grill, chatting with them and dutifully sanitizing her hands; after popping into the hardware store to buy a light bulb, I munched an excellent hot dog nicely grilled with a toasted bun, slathered in yellow mustard, ballpark-style.

Despite her concerns about a current decrease in sales, especially the way inflation has driven up prices, Halat remains positive.

"People are watching their money right now, which is understandable. We'll see how it goes in the future. Hopefully, things will change for the better."

I hope so too: these barbecues built into the silver cart serving street meat are part of our culinary history, no matter what city you're in.


Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

CBC-KW food columnist Andrew Coppolino is author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press). He is the 2022 Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewcoppolino.


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