Weiner Takes All

Want to make a little easy money? Whatever you do, don't go into business hawking hot dogs on the street. It's a jungle out there.

Although Mondrag buys some hot dogs and other supplies from Amado Yaber, he tends to shop at wholesalers, where prices are generally cheaper. He is lucky -- he owns a car and doesn't need to hire anyone to transport his cart for him. He is also the sort of vendor who will lend his competitors straws, napkins, even buns and hot dogs, should they run short. Others, he confides, are less cooperative. He mentions a man who began working the corner across First Street five months ago. "You really have to watch him," Mondrag centsn says in a low voice. "He's the most malicious of them all."

At first, he explains, the man tried to undercut his prices, charging 45 cents for a soda, compared to the 60 cents he gets. Later his competitor began snatching things from Mondrag's cart while he wasn't looking, and calling him maric centsn and other names in front of customers. "I think he wanted to provoke a fight so the police would come," the vendor remarks. "But the police would kick us both out of here. I tried to explain to him that even if we're not for the same cause, at least we have the same necessities. We should work together. But he didn't want to listen." Recently the man has calmed down a bit. "An evangelical has been speaking to him," Mondrag centsn says. "I think it's helped somewhat. But the problem is that there's something wrong with his head."

Another vendor's pestering is not enough to compel Mondrag to seek another spot. Though he does less business here than the vendors on Flagler Street, he has his moments, even in the morning. When a passing couple inquire in Spanish about the foot-long Garcia beef sausages browning on his top grill, Mondrag quotes them a price of $1.75 each. "Caro," says the man, staring at the glistening frank. "Okay," says Mondrag. "One-fifty."

With that, the vendor commences the routine. "Mustard?" he asks. Nods are answered by a good dousing. Heavy on the ketchup and the mayo. "Relish?" (which comes out "releesh?") is next. Finally his food trays yield the crowning touches: simmering onions and sauerkraut. Cans of the pineapple soft drink Jupina wash everything down.

Such are the moments vendors cherish. And the ones they've invested in, with more than sweat.

New carts can cost between $2500 and $9000, depending on quality and features. On top of that, food vendors must obtain two $300 licenses, one from the City of Miami and the other from the Florida Department of Business Regulation's Division of Hotels and Restaurants, as well as a $45 permit from Dade County.

Mondrag centsn says he paid $3500 for his used cart, which was worth more like $1500. The extra money, he was led to believe, guaranteed him the territory he occupies. "[The owner] gave me a letter of sale saying I had bought the cart located at this space. Only later did I discover that the space cannot be sold." There's no point trying to get even, says Mondrag centsn A the man who sold him the piece of sidewalk went back to Nicaragua, where he was killed in a shootout. "Fortunately, up to now," he adds, "I haven't had a problem with someone trying to take my spot."

Henry Johnson III steps across the soft carpet of his eighteenth-floor office at the Downtown Development Authority at One Biscayne Tower. Near his large desk, a wall of windows frames a panorama of the bay to the east. Johnson's job, on the other hand, draws him west, to the streets of downtown. As a DDA urban planner, he is the man who acts as the authority's liaison to street vendors. (Although the City of Miami's Department of Public Works has regulated downtown vending since 1984, a DDA-sponsored resolution passed two weeks ago by the Miami City Commission will transfer that authority to Johnson's office, provided the commission follows up the resolution with legislation.

"DDA has an interest in the area, so we feel that it's our responsibility to be on the forefront of the vending issue," Johnson asserts. "Even though PublicWorks has been in charge of enforcing the city's vending ordinance, we've played a vital role in making sure vendors meet the requirements and keep themselves up to par. We do that by spending a lot of time speaking to them on the street."

Indeed, earlier this year Johnson's agency produced the "Street Vendors Handbook," a bilingual guide to the bureaucratic side of fruit, flower, and hot dog hawking in the City of Miami. The handbook contains a map that depicts exactly 83 locations where vendors are permitted to operate downtown, as well as explanations of the city ordinance that governs vending and licensing procedures for cart owners.

The ordinance limits vending to certain areas. The sidewalk upon which a cart sits, for instance, must be at least six feet in width, and vendors are prohibited from setting up in certain locations -- within five feet of a building's entrance, for example. Most important from a vendor's perspective: by law the 83 pushcart locations are not assigned to individuals. Rather, the first person to arrive in a designated spot on any given day has the right to stay for the remainder of the day.

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