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August 9, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Hot dogs — the next foodie battleground?

Courtesy Mainely Hotdogs Caption: Derke Gibbs with his Mainely Hotdogs cart in Portland. He serves beef hot dogs from Snap Dogs of New York City.

In case you missed it, July was national hot dog month, but the occasion wasn’t lost on Derke Gibbs, who started his Mainely Hotdogs push cart business at the corner of Commercial and Silver streets in Portland’s Old Port last month.

Gibbs, who works full-time during the days at a fabrication company, sells Snap Dog brand hot dogs from New York, which he said are made from premium cut beef. The words Snap Dog and beef are even emblazoned onto each hot dog to emphasize they are made from beef, not pork or chicken byproducts as is common in the hot dog trade, he said.

“I grew up around fast food in Brooklyn,” Gibbs told Mainebiz. “There were hot dog carts all over my neighborhood.”

He wanted to start a food cart business, and talked to some friends who recommended he sell the Snap Dog brand hot dog because they thought it tasted better.

Snap Dog sells through 35 independent cart owners and two delis, one in Florida and one on Long Island, New York, Snap Dog founder and CEO Keith Dorman said. Gibbs’ cart is the first to sell his hot dogs in Maine.

“I’m a single dad and wanted to lead by example,” Gibbs said. “I wanted to show my daughter that her father is a leader.” He runs the cart from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. from Thursday through Sunday, and sometimes heads to other areas of Portland.

“I’ve been welcomed with open arms,” he said.

But it’s an education process.

“A lot of people walk by thinking I’m selling garbage hot dogs,” he said. “I explain that the Snap Dog is premium cut beef. Portland likes good food.” Hot dogs run $2 to $4.50, depending on the toppings. He also sells sausages, drinks and snacks.

All American food

Americans consume more than 7 billion hot dogs between Memorial and Labor days, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, which in 2015 valued the amount shoppers spend on hot dogs, including at retail stores, at $2.5 billion. The council, quoting statistics from the Heartland Buffalo Co., noted that 15% of hot dogs are bought from street vendors and 9% at ballparks.

Dorman of Snap Dog, which set up its first cart in Manhattan at 55th St. and Broadway three years ago, said he’d like to move beyond the street vendor business and get into other venues as well.

“We’re a wholesaler, supplier of the hot dogs and a marketing company,” he said, adding the company doesn’t want to expand too rapidly. In addition to Portland, it will have two new push cart vendors soon in Florida in Daytona Beach and Port St. Lucie.

One difficulty in hot dog sales is distinguishing the product, he said.

“Most hot dogs look the same,” he said. “The consumer has no idea of what they’re eating. Our flavor profile for our New York hot dog includes more flavors and a hint of garlic.” He added that his company is unique in stamping that it is made of beef right onto the hot dog.

Dorman said about 80% of the hot dogs sold in New York City are made from mechanically separated chicken, a paste-like meat product made by forcing pureed meat under high pressure through a sieve to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue. They can save a hot dog vendor about 18 cents per hot dog, he said.

“It’s hot dog fraud,” he added.

Dorman said it typically costs push cart vendors less than $15,000 to start up a business to sell Snap Dogs, including the cart, the licensing and the permits. Snap Dog makes its money on selling the hot dogs, and has no minimum sales figure for the independent cart vendors.

Gibbs declined to talk about his startup costs, but so far said has had a good experience selling hot dogs in Portland. A Google search revealed several ratings of hot dogs in Portland, listing over a dozen locales for “great hot dogs.”

For those who worry about dropping hot dog toppings on their shirts, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council noted that “hot dog etiquette” requires putting the toppings on the hot dog and not the bun, and taking only five bites to complete eating the concoction — seven for a foot-long wiener.

Gibbs also has started a company called Mainely Promotions with his daughter, a high school student in Portland, as co-founder and chief of operations. That company will throw parties with entertainment and do charity events, with the Mainely Hotdogs push cart serving food. He also runs a podcast about rappers and underground music called Battle World Radio.

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