As much attention as Portland gets these days for our burgeoning foodie scene, sometimes it really comes down to the basics, the tried and true that you can count on year after year. After more than 30 years in business, Mark Gatti and his food cart Mark’s Hot Dogs are true Old Port institutions, a place downtown workers can count on to grab a quick, delicious dog to enjoy in the park or while on the go.
Mark says he had the idea for Mark’s Hot Dogs for a few years before finally taking the leap. After graduating from college, he took a job working in public relations at an insurance company in Colorado, but didn’t really enjoy it. Once the economy started to turn for the worse he began to feel the pull of entrepreneurship and remembered food carts he had seen when traveling out west. Mark decided what he really wanted to do was return home and go into business for himself, so he saved up $5,000 and moved back to Maine. His father helped him build the hot dog stand, which is the same one he still uses today. Mark first opened for business at the corner of Middle Street and Exchange Street in 1983 and he’s been in the exact same spot ever since.
A typical work day for Mark begins at 6 a.m. as he spends about an hour cleaning all of his equipment. By 8 a.m. he hooks up the stand to his trailer and sets off to pick up any supplies he needs for the day. Mark rolls into Tommy’s Park around 9 a.m. and unloads everything, then spends about an hour prepping for the day. He opens for business at 10:30 a.m., although is happy to tend to early birds simply in need of a bottle of water or a soda while he does his food prep work.
The menu is pretty straightforward, with hot dogs the main attraction, as plain as you want them or with all the fixings, such as ketchup, mustard, onions, sauerkraut, hot sauce and more. He also serves up chili dogs and the Bomb Dog, which is basically a dog with everything. Another popular item on the menu is the Italian sausage with peppers and onions. Mark also sells water, soda and chips. In the summertime he offers Thai spring rolls, but says he no longer serves veggie dogs because there just isn’t enough of a demand for them, although, “For some people I make a roll with sauerkraut, mustard and cheese in it, a weinie-less type of thing.”
Customers start trickling in around 10:30 am, typically a mix of shift workers and Portland High School students. By noon Mark is in full swing, artfully constructing mouth-watering dogs and Italian sausages for his loyal customers. Despite the many visitors the Old Port receives, Mark says that tourists only make up about 5-10% of his business. For Mark, Old Port workers and residents are his primary customers. “Most of my business is regular customers, and I’ve gone through different cycles of regulars being here for 32 years,” he says.
Mark typically works until 5 p.m., 4 p.m. in the winter months, and then packs up, drives home and unloads everything for the day. “I’m done with my day by 6 p.m.,” says Mark. “So I basically work 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., which is not bad for the food business.”
While the summer and fall tend to be friendly to outside workers, winter can be a bit challenging. When asked how he copes with being outside for eight hours a day Mark replies, “Layers. Tons of layers. I wear seven or eight light layers, and I am not just being facetious. The older I get, the colder I get, so layers are important.”
Mark also says he doesn’t work full time in the winter, partly by choice, partly because of the sheer challenges some Maine winters present.
“The last two winters have been horrific, so I couldn’t even come out at all sometimes,” said Mark. “So I’m really more part time in the winter. This year I worked the first three weeks of January, then the last week of January and the entire month of February I could not come out because of all the snow. This spot here was absolutely buried. When I came in early March I spent one entire day just digging this whole site out.”
While there is no typical day in any business, Mark says in the slower half of the year (November through March) he will typically sell 50 to 80 hot dogs a day, while the warmer days can be almost double that, with days averaging anywhere from 80 to 150 hot dogs.
Mark has certainly seen a lot in his more than three decades in business. “My first year was 1983 and it was slow in the beginning but I just stuck with it. It took about a year and a half before I really made good money. Then I had my halcyon period from 1985-1989, which was the best business I ever had. That was the honeymoon period, partly because there wasn’t nearly as much competition then. The park was also formatted differently. There was a bandstand where bands played three days a week during the summer, and there were benches where people could sit so there was room for maybe 80 people to sit down and eat their lunch. It’s prettier now, but for practical purposes it was more functional back then because you could accommodate so many more people.”
When asked what he likes most about his job, Mark answers, “My favorite part is working in a beautiful area with beautiful buildings, I just love that it’s so pretty down here. I really like being self-employed and I like that each day I never know what’s going to happen, I never know how much money I’m going to make, I never know who I’m going to run into. I like that variety combined with knowing where I’m going to come each day, so it’s a nice balance for me.”
Mark’s Hot Dogs, corner of Middle Street and Exchange Street, Monday – Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. or 5 p.m. (depending on the season). 207-232-4620.