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The Villages
Thursday, April 22, 2021

A Jersey girl’s experience running a hot dog cart

Lisa DeMarco

My all time favorite service job, after over 40 years in the hospitality industry, would have to be hands down my hot dog cart. Not only did I have a blast working the streets, but it was the only job I ever had where no one told me to stop talking!

“A little less talking, a little more working,” is a phrase I am quite used to hearing.

In all my service years, if my boss wasn’t complaining about me talking too much to the customers, then it was my coworkers who were fussing that I talk too much to their customers. Too bad none of them ever really curtailed my speaking.

Gil, the original owner of “The Diner” (Casa Manana), my Alabama Big Daddy, used to say all the time, “If I gave you 5,000 words a shift, you would be out before your first customer ever walked in the door, because you talk so much crap just setting up the restaurant in the morning.”

Then he’d add something like, “Really Lisa, you could easily waste a full day of my dialogue in just one conversation.”

Luckily for me, despite loving to ride my Jersey butt, my Florida bossman also loved me and what he called my “Sopranos/Addams Family” family, like we were kin. He was the one to offer me the opportunity of running my own hot dog cart, lock, stock and barrel. Why? I’ll never know, but he was my silent partner, with his restaurant being my legal kitchen and commissary. What a deal right?!

I got to set up on the roadside with my brand new food cart, sporting my hot pink umbrella, and spotlighting all my tasty treats. I danced around to the Golden Oldies on my battery operated radio, blowing bubbles into traffic. I had signs I would hold up that read:

“Honks are great, but let me feed you!”

“Beeps and waves don’t pay my bills!”

“Customers needed. Apply now!”

I LOVED every minute of it, especially once I got my groove on. I had to learn how to maneuver my new toy, and that meant hitching it to my Jeep and performing my task. Anything and everything that was involved in running this food cart on a daily basis was my responsibility. That meant I had to fill and carry all my own water and propane tanks, iced coolers, crates of product, etc. I knew how to do everything, I just never had to physically do on my own. This job, I had to pull my own weight (despite my mere 100 pounds soaking wet). There would be no one there to help me along my day, without the shame of either calling my boss or my husband to admit, “I need help.”

Plus, I am a true Jersey girl. I don’t even like to pump my own gas, more or less be the driver of the party. I’m more like the passenger that brings great treats for the trip, and now I was going to have to drive a “hitched device.” Live and learn.

My favorite, “MEMO To Self,” would have to be the lesson I learned at the lumber yard location. It was one of my first trial spot that I had been given permission to be on. I believed the property had a good traffic flow and that employees, vendors, customers and drivers would be interested in buying their lunch from me each day.

Everything looked great. Bossman and my husband had both outlined everything I needed to do food-wise and machinery-wise. I was prepared, stocked, ready to go, and hoping to sell out of all my goodies to prove the whole adventure to be a promising new beginning.

Well, some of that dream did come true. My sales were above our expectation, and when I started to break it all down for the day, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Until right after I backed my Jeep up so I could hitch it on to leave, and I realized my cart had sunk a couple inches into the dirt where I had parked, and now my toe ball was too high to attach it. 

Oh my goodness! I could feel all my warm fuzzies melting into a cold sweat. What was I going to do? I kept trying, with no avail, to somehow lift the cart up just enough to get it connected, so I could be on my merry way. I couldn’t even get it to budge. My “Olive Oil” arms were not going to cut it. No way. No how! 

By now, I was almost in tears and ready to fall on my sword and call my husband to come help me. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a group of young men across the parking lot almost on the ground from laughing at me. As we all made eye contact, I think they suddenly started to feel guilty for watching me struggle because the smallest of the five corn-fed, country boys, walked over still giggling. He, then, barely touched the back end of my cart and gently lifted it up and slid it perfectly into place saying, “Sorry lady, we were wondering how long it would take you to look up and ask for help.”

With that, I made a new buddy that promised to help me out if I ever needed him, right after he informed me that he weighed what I weigh in the 5th grade, so I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I couldn’t lift a couple thousand pound cart. He also taught me a trick to never getting stuck on Florida sand again, put my hitch on a cement block or brick before I disconnect my Jeep, this way it won’t sink. After that, I never left home without one, and Tyler never went hungry when I was around.  

My other valuable lessons include, never leave items on the top of my cart while driving. I learned that one while bossman was following me to a festival. He said he desperately tried to get my attention, but I was oblivious. He was trying to inform me that one of my tins of gravy that I did not properly secure had just fallen off and decorated the highway. Apparently I was too busy jamming to my radio to even realize that he was beeping his horn and flashing his headlights at me for at least five miles. Not until of course, we got to our designated destination, and he told me about the gravy right before he ripped me a new biscuit. 

Nonetheless, the Mary Poppins incident would have to be my craziest day ever. I was in Umatilla, setting up in the parking lot of Uncle Tom’s Tavern for a local Harley Davidson Bike Festival. It was a beautiful, warm day, and the streets were buzzing with bikers and motorcycles. The sky was clear, and there was a lovely breeze keeping us all cool. Until out of nowhere, the sky turned dark, and the breeze became a wind that created a sandstorm around me, causing my umbrella to start behaving unpredictably. I closed up everything I could as quickly as possible, and I tried to grab my umbrella, so I could close it and take it off my rig. Unfortunately I could barely do either. I managed to pull it out of its holder, still open, and as I did the entire umbrella popped upward, lifting me slightly off the ground. Within seconds, as I literally felt myself begin to rise, at least four large, burly, bearded men grabbed hold of me and my now six foot lightning rod, and managed to remedy my situation. Now left dirty, out of breath, and a little in shock, I needed to get my thoughts in order. I took my graceful bow and thanked the kind gentlemen for their help.

Then, just as quickly as the weird storm came, it was gone. The sun came back out, and although everything on the outside of my cart was dusty, everything on the inside was still looking good and smelling delicious. I cleaned up quickly and in moments I was ready to open up shop again. By now, everyone had worked up an appetite, so sales turned out a good day after all. Despite me buying several new friends their lunch that day, I still managed to make a pretty penny in my tip jar. Apparently, I was the best entertainment of the day!

Laugh on. Peace out.

Lisa DeMarco is a waitress at Billy’s Cafe and a columnist for Villages-News.com

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