Hot Dog Economics

By Beacon Staff

When Craig Campbell looks at a hot dog, he sees a career opportunity. And in this floundering economy, he’s not alone.

As more people rethink their career choices, operating a hot dog cart – or other vending service – has become an increasingly enticing business endeavor: low overhead costs, a lot of time in the sun, quality social interaction and good profit, especially in a tourist-rich region like the Flathead.

All of which poses an interesting question to city officials: How do you govern the hot dog man?

In the resort town of Whitefish, officials are mulling this dilemma. Every spring, aspiring entrepreneurs approach the city with questions about how to open a mobile vendor or temporary business. In past years, due to the city’s vague and out-of-date regulations, officials have simply asked for $25 and then handed out a permit without review. Not to mention, there are vendors operating without permits and there’s not much officials can do when their own regulations lack weight.

But this year, with people feeling particularly entrepreneurial, the city has decided to address the issue and clarify its regulations. The planning department has been drafting a proposal that will likely make the permitting process stricter and cut down on the number of vendors, if not the type of vendors as well. The proposed changes will go before the planning board on May 21 and then move on to city council.

“People are diversifying in ways to create income,” Whitefish Planning Director Dave Taylor said. “(A mobile vendor) is something that someone can do with not a lot of investment.”

Campbell is one of these mobile entrepreneurs and the only one currently with a permit in Whitefish – he’s licensed to sell hot dogs out of the VFW parking lot on certain nights and at softball games on Mondays. After injuring himself at his previous construction job for Swank Enterprises, Campbell was forced to get creative for work. One day, while munching on a hot dog at New York Hot Dawgs in Kalispell, Campbell came to a simple but life-altering conclusion: “Well, I can do this.”

So now he runs his own hot dog stand, along with his wife Janice and the help of their sons. For Campbell, it’s not a side job or a casual hobby. It’s his full-time career. He’s licensed, insured and decked out with all of the equipment he needs, including his cart and an auction-purchased old Mazda pickup to pull it. On the East Coast, it’s not uncommon for hot dog stand operators to make upward of $40,000-$50,000 per year and Campbell hopes that type of success translates to the West.

Because of the cold weather, Campbell hasn’t been out at the VFW, but he is set up five days a week from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in front of Smith’s in Columbia Falls. He also works special events around the valley.

This is only Campbell’s first year and the sunny season is just getting underway, but Campbell sees enough business potential that he’s already looking into getting a second home around Lake Havasu, Ariz., so he can keep the hot dogs cooking through the winter. He has no desire to shiver through a Montana December in a parking lot.

Several mobile vendors have become dining staples in the Flathead’s spring and summer seasons, including the popular Island Noodles. Similar stands, often Mexican food vendors, have found success in other cities such as Missoula, particularly with the bar crowd. On a recent Wednesday in Columbia Falls, Campbell sold nearly 20 hot dogs in his first couple of hours, which he felt, considering the less-than-optimal windy conditions, was an efficient rate.

Whitefish planners have looked to a variety of resort towns as possible models for the new regulations. One of those towns is Aspen, Colo., which has stringent laws. Outside of special events, only existing businesses can set up outdoor displays for their products. A random entrepreneur isn’t allowed to set up shop anywhere.

Drew Alexander, a planning technician in Aspen, said his city’s regulations are largely designed to avoid creating situations in which local businesses, already paying a lease or property taxes along with other overhead costs, suddenly find themselves competing with a cart operating out on the street.

Taylor, Whitefish’s planning director, echoed Alexander’s sentiments.

“That’s a concern; they have $5,000 in a hot dog stand and then next door they have $1 million in a place selling the same thing,” Taylor said.

Other cities either have recently increased restrictions on mobile vendors and temporary businesses or are looking into the matter. Nikki Bond, a Whitefish planner, said Jackson Hole and Sandpoint, Idaho have adopted stringent laws similar to Aspen’s. In Midvale, Utah, the city council is considering a stricter ordinance on the town’s popular taco carts.

In the Flathead, Campbell said Whitefish, with its existing regulations, required more paperwork to get a permit than Columbia Falls did. He also has an agreement with the Flathead County Fairgrounds for events, though he doesn’t operate elsewhere in Kalispell. While each municipality has its own licensing procedures, all food vendors have to abide by Flathead County Health Department guidelines.

Bond said it’s too early to answer many questions as Whitefish moves forward with drafting its new regulations, but she could say that the city is looking into language that would clarify between food and merchandise vendors, address size limits and public right-of-way issues such as vendors blocking the sidewalk, and provide more oversight in general. Special events, such as Huckleberry Days and the Farmer’s Market, are governed separately and will not be affected.

Meanwhile, Campbell is enjoying his new career. His Chicago-style dogs and bratwursts, which sell for $2, $3 or $4, are already becoming a hit in Columbia Falls. He anticipates business will pick up considerably during the summer tourist season and has a second cart ready to go if his son needs a little cash too.

“It’s been more fun than anything,” Campbell said. “I get to be outside, talk to people. It’s really great.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.