A Dog-Eat-Dog World for LI Hot Dog Trucks

By Brittany Wait

Joe Piekanski pulls his hot dog truck out of the Sabrett parking lot and down the street to a sweet dirt spot off Horseblock Road in Medford.

He turns off the ignition and heats up the oven.

It’s 11 a.m. and he is ready to sell hot dogs.

With colorful stickers displaying years of permit, G.I. Joe’s hot dog truck has been open since 2006 with his lengthy menu peeking from the window. Choices include pre-cooked Sabrett hot dogs with toppings like chili and cheese. A Frank’s Red Hot sauce bottle, pepper shaker and bowl of lollipops wait for customers on the ledge below the serving window connected to the outside of his truck. Piekanski, 76, proudly hangs an American flag from the outside. After all, he is a United States military veteran.

Mt. Sinai native, Kevin Murphy, 53, grew up eating hot dogs from street trucks, and to satisfy his childhood memories he buys a can of cherry soda or Yoo-hoo.

“You tend to see them on these types of roads,” he said. “I just saw a pretty good amount coming across them today.”

Staking Out Territory

Stephen Kane, associate sanitarian at the Suffolk County Dept. of Health Services, said hot dog street vendors run up against problems not so much with the health department, but because of a territorial issue.

Health Services does not assign locations for food vending, rather locations are either permitted or assigned by each individual town. Sometimes hot dog trucks have to fight for the most popular spots off of highway ramps or major roads.

To legally serve hot dogs, Health Services requires vendors to post permits in public view. Kane said that the competition not only involves finding vending locations. Competitors also try to get other vendors in trouble with the department if they do not have a permit.

Although there are about the same number of hot dog trucks popping up across Long Island, a growing industry is making it more difficult for those vendors to make a living.
Two years ago, in 2008, the department permitted 83 hot dog trucks to sell pre-cooked dogs on the roads of Eastern Long Island. A year later, it permitted 78. Today, the number is up to 82. Many are the same trucks, but some are new.

Kane found that the number of permitted vehicles has generally stayed the same, but one business may be sold from one vendor to another. A growing industry involving not only hot dogs, but also hot sandwiches and Knishes has formed in recent years. The ‘Hot Dawg Truck,’ stationed seven days a week off the Meadowbrook Parkway in Garden City, sells just that.

Mobile Food on the Rise

Mobile fast food vehicles have significantly increased in number since 2008. Two years ago, the department issued permits for 16 mobile fast food trucks in Suffolk County. In 2009, 23 were under permit and 12 more have joined the growing industry this year.

“There has been a great interest in doing basically food on wheels,” said Kane.

Hot dog vendors must pay an annual fee of $185 to sell hot dogs in Suffolk County and are subject to routine surprise inspections from the department. Hot dog truck owners can choose to sign up for a one or two year permit. The two-year permit would cost $370.

Piekanski works four hours a day, seven day a week. At the end of the day—he is just trying to make a living.

“It’s very competitive,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in the area here that are, you know, trying to make a living with the economy the way it is, it’s pretty rough.”