What downtown Detroit might lack in affordable apartments and smooth traffic, it makes up in culinary options. New, trendy restaurants pop up on street corners daily, ever-changing the city’s foodscape. For things like hot dogs and Polish sausages, though, it’s best to grab one hot off a street food cart.
Tourists or city staples spoiled for lunch choices may want to sample honest, city-bred food from one of the dozens of independent food vendors in the area. One vendor, who calls himself Hotdog Man – he didn’t want to give his full name – sets up his licensed shop every day downtown, in the shadow of the Detroit Public Library’s Skillman branch and right across from Vault of Midnight comic book store.
“I’ve been out here doing this for 17 years,” Hotdog Man says. “(For the) last three years, my cart was my own.” Hotdog Man’s cart is easily recognized – it’s the one with the sign proclaiming that, ‘There are black people in the future.’ He sells a variety of hot dogs and Polish sausages, and assorted pop and candy. Recently, he added ice cream to his menu, but those are only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Hotdog Man used to work as a cook at Bert’s Marketplace in Eastern Market. When he started vending, his first cart was actually owned by his boss and not all of his profits were his to keep. He says he was treated fairly. “If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have been doing this so long. I’m 58; this is my retirement.”
Still, he has had to deal with things a brick-and-mortar restaurant wouldn’t – like a stolen kitchen. “There’s been ups and downs. My first year, someone stole my cart. I was on TV and everything, and it took me two months to come back and start selling again. I was just lucky (that) I had money right then to get a new cart.”
The immediate area around Hotdog Man’s cart is currently under construction. New shops and buildings are coming to the Library/Gratiot walkways. He says he isn’t concerned. In fact, he’s excited. “I can’t wait for them to get finished with all that building. When they clear out, it’s gonna be new stuff and more people coming down here to see me,” he says.
His sign, he says, means exactly it sounds like, and it’s what he believes. “We’re not going anywhere, (vendors) and people trying to make a living. We just roll with the punches and, so far, we’re still here.” In 2018, the city of Los Angeles attempted to drastically cut “walkway traffic” by cracking down on unregulated street vendors. Petitions and protests reversed the decision and LA’s street food culture lived to fry another day.
Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey says she isn’t aware of any measure in the works to do the same here. “As long as they’re licensed, I don’t foresee any issues with Detroit vendors,” Winfrey says. “I don’t see as many of them as I used to, and I hope they’re doing alright. Vending is an opportunity for small business to sell their wares. Personally, I’m all for it.”
Hotdog Man is just one of the various vendors scattered throughout the downtown area. Instead of grabbing Wahlburger or Calexico for the third time this week, maybe support the city’s small guys and walk an extra few blocks for an everything-on-it Red Hot dog. It’s totally worth it.
Hotdog Man • 313-685-3870