Entrepreneurship

Frank New Documentary on Washington, DC's Hot Dog Entrepreneurs Gets it Right

An excellent new documentary, which premieres next week at the Austin Film Festival, looks at the challenges faced by Washington, DC's food cart entrepreneurs.

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The excellent new documentary Dog Days shines a light on the unglamorous world of Washington, DC's food carts, many of which ring the National Mall and sell boiled hot dogs. It tells the story of "the micro-entrepreneurial world of street vending in our nation's capital, and explores how two unlikely business partners navigate the cultural, economic, and regulatory barriers standing in their way."

Dog Days premieres next weekend as part of the twentieth annual Austin Film Festival, where it's an official selection.

I was fortunate to screen an advance copy of Dog Days last week. I found it to be a smart, measured, and informative look at a difficult profession that's made no easier thanks to long-stalled regulatory reform.

If you enjoy watching food documentaries for their frequent bromides, smug narrative, or overblown shots of food porn, look elsewhere. But if you want to see the challenges small food entrepreneurs face on a daily basis—with long hours of hard work as their only guarantee—then you'll love Dog Days.

I sent about two-dozen questions to filmmaker Kasey Kirby, who replied by email. An edited transcript of our conversation appears below.

Reason: What's your background—and that of your fellow filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson?

Kasey Kirby: Laura and I both have graduate degrees from American University in Film/Video (MFA/MA respectively). I wandered into film after studying accounting/finance in undergrad and working for two years in Chicago as an auditor.

Reason: Why Dog Days? What's your interest in street food?

KK: I was interested in the story largely because I made a similar transition professionally [to that depicted in the film] in plunging into an industry I didn't have any experience with and trying to keep my head above water. In addition, as we learned more about street food vending, I became interested in the story of why exclusively hot dogs existed on the streets for so long, when so many other cities had much more vibrant options available.

Reason: When did you start work on the project?

KK: We started shooting the film in the early part of 2009, and continued to shoot off and on for the next four years in between other projects.

Reason: Why did you focus on vendors in Washington, DC?

KK: Laura and I have shot two films together in Rwanda and I also travel abroad quite a bit with other clients, so I started to feel like I knew more about communities in other parts of the world than I knew about my own backyard. For that reason, it propelled both of us to want to invest in a more DC-centric story.

Reason: Mobile food vending is hip now thanks mostly to mobile food trucks. So why did you decide to focus your documentary largely on non-mobile, unhip subjects like food-cart entrepreneur Coite Manuel, an out-of-work engineer, and immigrant hot dog vendors like Siyone?

KK: We began shooting when there were only a few food trucks on the scene, and we loved Coite's idea of bringing new food to the streets, but working with existing vendors. We also felt like there was a largely untold story there about an immigrant population of vendors that have been selling food on the streets of DC for over 20 years.

Reason: Coite had big dreams of changing the culture of DC vending by competing with the District's powerful vending depots. In what way did he succeed most?

KK: To me, Coite's success is more about the process of pursuing what he was passionate about doing rather than the financial success or failure of the business which is subject to change at any moment.

Reason: How representative of the DC hot dog vending community is Siyone, the Eritrean immigrant, single mom, and hot dog vendor featured in Dog Days?

KK: As far as the thirty-plus vendors that we talked to over the course of filming, Siyone's story seems to be fairly similar to other hot dog vendors. Most of these vendors came to the US to seek new opportunities and have now been vending on the streets for over 20 years, having put their children through college with this income, which they are so proud of. It's a physically taxing job, but there's a deep sense of satisfaction and pride that we've seen in the vendors that we've talked to.

Reason: Why is immigrant culture so important to the story you wanted to tell in Dog Days?

KK: We wanted to capture the immigrant story in the film because it's a community that can easily be overlooked in the course of day-to-day life in DC, but are an integral part of DC and we can learn a lot from their stories. Due largely to financial restraints, many of the vendors live outside of DC, but I think I can confidently say that most everyone in DC has stopped at a hot dog cart at some point in time, whether for a Gatorade, pack of gum, hot dog, etc. We wanted to draw attention to that story.

Reason: Why don't the (mostly) immigrant vendors who sell hot dogs from food carts in the District instead cook the food they grew up eating?

KK: The vendors mostly sell hot dogs rather than a more unique or cultural food for two main reasons in my eyes. First, it's more economical for them to cram as many hot dogs as they can into their carts, a food that requires very little prep work, and therefore they are able to process more volume. Second, there's a supply side stranglehold that makes it very difficult for them to vend anything but hot dogs/chips should they even have that desire.

Reason: Describe the rules and economics that created and sustain the hot dog vending scene in DC.

KK: The rules are fairly complex and wordy and fairly difficult to capture in a sentence or two. The depots incentivize buying food from their warehouses by reducing or eliminating daily parking fees if the vendors purchase large volumes of food from them each day. In essence they're a one-stop shop. While vendors are technically "free" to shop anywhere, it makes very little sense for them to buy food elsewhere and pay the maximum parking fee every night when their take-home income every day is already fairly low.

Reason: The film mentions that there are approximately 700 fewer vendors in the District than there were a decade ago. Why is that the case?

KK: Prior to 1998, when there were over 1,000 hot dog carts in DC, the locations were on a first come first serve basis, which led to disputes on the street among vendors. That led the city council to establish a moratorium in 1998 to cap the number of vendors at 300 or so and assigning specific locations to those 300, while the council figured out what to do with street food vending in the city.

This regulation that reduced the number of vendors to 300 paved the way for a drastic reduction in the number of depots that were needed down to three (of which I believe one more has shut down), in essence creating a monopoly. The vendors that we spoke with feel like their hands are tied for the most part as far as cart storage, and in turn food purchasing, options.

Reason: How would you solve the regulatory problems for hot dog vendors in DC?

KK: I would remove the moratorium, thus opening the number of vending licenses that would be available and allow the market to dictate how many carts are able to be supported in the city. That would naturally bring some more competition to the existing few warehouses, which would force them to look at carrying other food options than just hot dogs, chips, etc. which ultimately benefits vendors and consumers alike.

Reason: When will regulatory reform come to DC for hot dog vendors?

KK: That's a great question that I wish I had the answer to. It's been promised for over fifteen years that change is right around the corner.

Reason: How have mobile food trucks impacted hot dog carts?

KK: That's a tough question, because I'm not sure if the food trucks and hot dog vendors are in direct competition with each other. There's an argument to be made that people go to food trucks for more of a full, hearty lunch, and go to hot dog vendors for a snack or a cold drink rather than a full meal. In that case food trucks are more in competition with brick and mortar lunch serving restaurants.

In certain circumstances, it's possible that food trucks are earning dollars that previously may have gone to hot dog carts, but I would say on the whole food trucks are not to blame. If you look at where food trucks tend to congregate, often times there aren't even hot dog carts around.

Reason: "This isn't the perfect entrepreneurial narrative," Coite says toward the end of the film. Do you agree with him?

KK: I'm not sure there is such a thing as a perfect entrepreneurial narrative. The way, I think, he means it is that his concept hasn't landed exactly where he imagined it would land. Every entrepreneurship story is different, but the common thread seems to be that they work extremely hard and try to make the best decisions they can with the information they have and the rest is more or less out of their control.