By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — There used to be more of them.
Over time the idea of the food truck or hot dog cart has slowly dwindled across Michigan. The flood of wheeled vendors has not been as prevalent in recent years, as many food truck and cart owners point to higher operating costs and marginal revenue.
But in downtown St. Joseph, a city where throngs of people seem to course through it with money to spend each summer, these portable restaurants on wheels linger on.
Marge and John Rivera are among those who sell from a cart in St. Joseph. The retired couple has run the Twisted Dawg along the bluff near the cannon statue for five years.
They open in early April and close near the end of October, weather permitting.
Marge used to work in the medical field, but was looking for another source of income after she was laid off. Then her husband asked her what she wanted to do.
“At my age it was getting harder and harder to get employment,” she said. “I wanted to do something to help me and other ladies around me to make a little extra money. He said ‘what about hot dogs?’”
John made the cart and Marge began two year’s worth of research. Then came the tedious task of securing city permits and health code licensing. With the help of Cornerstone Alliance, Marge made her way through a mountain of paperwork.
Licenses for selling on city property open at the start of the year and are awarded on a first-come basis. On average, permits cost $1,000 and are good from April 1 through Oct. 31. In addition to the permits and licensing, each cart is given a yearly impromptu inspection by the health department to determine if they comply with regulations.
“It’s not an easy task to do,” Marge said. “The trick of it is you have to like what you do. This gentleman from the health department said I needed a gimmick. So, we tested out a few different things. My poor husband had to eat two years worth of hot dogs.”
Survival of the fittest
Ben Yacobozzi knows how to operate a hot dog cart.
The St. Joseph native has run the Hot Dog Kart with his family for 33 years. His children for many years ran the cart to put themselves through college.
Yacobozzi, 76, said running his cart has changed drastically since it first opened.
“When we started, a permit cost $300. Now its $1,000,” he said. “With the old permit you could go anywhere in the city. Now you’re stuck on a certain location and can’t move. They’ve really tightened things up, and the expenses have gone up, too.”
St. Joseph allows five commercial vending permits a year on public property. The spots include the northeast corner of Broad and State streets, the intersection of Broad and Lake Boulevard on the bluff, Tiscornia Beach, Lookout Point and Lions Beach.
The spot that the Riveras use every year is not by circumstance.
“That’s the spot we pay for,” John Rivera said. “At first it takes time to get people to come. You can’t move with the people. It’s just trial and error. But it’s one of the best jobs two retired people can have.”
Other than their cart, the Riveras find other ways to bring in revenue. Marge Rivera said they work the ice rink confession stands in the winter and do the occasional catering.
“It’s still a money-maker,” Marge said. “It’s a good sense of accomplishment. You meet a lot of interesting people. However, the weather can be a big disadvantage.”
‘That gets expensive’
Mimi’s Cupcakes posts its food truck along a corner in the heart of downtown St. Joseph, across from the stairway the leads to Silver Beach Pizza.
Owner Elvis Walsh said that in addition to paying for a permit from the city, they also rent the spot from the lot’s owners. She said their truck will only be out in downtown St. Joseph for another month.
“We’ve owned the business for three years, but the people who owned it before us only had the truck itself,” Walsh said.
Under Walsh’s ownership, Mimi’s Cupcakes grew from an operation that was run out of a former mail truck. To break out of the seasonal business, Walsh opened a downtown store that would be open year round.
Mimi’s Cupcakes now does events like fundraisers and weddings. Walsh said they kept the truck because it was a way to remain mobile and take their cupcakes to areas beyond downtown. Unlike the food carts, Walsh’s 18-foot-long truck doesn’t have the same restrictions because the business doesn’t make food in the truck.
“We don’t have to update the truck because we don’t cook out of there. A lot of other food trucks require stove tops, and those require a lot more work,” Walsh said. “That gets expensive. So, we bake from our store and offer a portion of our cupcakes through the truck.”
Through the years, Yacobozzi has developed a checklist for making sure he and his family gets the most out of the Hot Dog Kart.
“In the beginning, you could do just about anything you wanted,” Yacobozzi said. “A couple vendors came in over time and created different problems. That caused the city to rewrite the ordinance a few times. Each time it was tightened up.”
If a cart is dealing food, its owner needs a license from the Berrien County Health Department. Additionally, they’ll need a sales tax license when selling food. The permit from the city requires a $1 million in liability insurance. Yacobozzi said they had already had $500,000 in liability insurance, prior to the city adding the item to the permit.
“What people don’t realize is it’s a business,” Yacobozzi said. “You have to have a good product with a fair price accompanied by good service. If you don’t pay attention to your Ps and Qs, you’re not going to be in business for long.”