PORTLAND, Maine — Since long before James Beard Award-winning chefs, culinary tourism, Instagramming hipsters and Food Network scouts turned this city into a culinary capital, Mark Gatti has hawked steamed hot dogs on the streets of Portland.
Stationed in Tommy’s Park five to six days a week in all kinds of weather, year round, the Wayne native is almost ready for his second set of keys to the city. “The mayor gave me the keys to the city on my 25th anniversary,” says the friendly hot dog vendor. “I think my wife lost them.”
That was almost a decade ago. On Tuesday June 13, Gatti reaches his 34th year in business.
His red cart, simply labeled Mark’s Hotdogs, is a reassuring presence in a city full of fickle food trends.
Passing pedestrians give the bespectacled figure in a T-shirt and knit hat a thumbs up. Regulars park their cars in front of his cart, jump out and hand him a few bucks. Workers scoot across Middle Street from their offices to grab what has become more and more of an anomaly in this city: an affordable lunch.
Sandwiched between Bard Coffee and Starbucks, Mark’s regular hot dogs ($2.75 including toppings) cost less than most coffee drinks. A cheese dog is $3, a Kielbasa sausage will set you back $5.75. He’s added condiments like Sriracha hot sauce to keep up with tastes, but for the most part Gatti’s business model is unchanged since 1983.
“Having something quick and easy for people,” is the key.
The results speak for themselves: they snap back. “Hot dogs are hot dogs. You are better off with high quality stuff,” says Gatti, who buys fresh franks in natural casings each morning from Micucci Grocery.
Though merely selling dogs, Gatti makes each transaction personal.
“Thank you for dining with me,” he told one customer out for a late lunch last week. “That will be $7.25.”
Underneath a colorful umbrella, Gatti opens and closes his red wooden cart and dispenses steamed dogs (brown and red) and sausages to ravished locals and hungry tourists all day. On a busy summer day he’ll do that 80 times.
“I’ve seen people grow up right in front of my eyes,” he said. “Some came here when they were babies in their parents’ arms. Now they are six-four. It’s like a community down here.”
And speaking of community, from his central perch he’s seen the city transform.
“The Old Port was such a dead-end part of town for years and years and years,” said Gatti. “Now there are a lot of great restaurants and boutiques.” And food trucks dispensing everything from Japanese street food to tacos to s’mores. But they can’t touch him.
“He’s a legend,” said Mike Garrison, a local who used to live in the neighborhood and returns to Mark’s when he can. “He’s always here,” he said with innocent delight.
David Addison, a marketer who works across the street, counts on Mark’s to get through the day.
“There should be a bronze statue or plaque here after he passes,” says Addison, grabbing a doctored dog. “I might start taking up a collection.”
Is equating Gatti to the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and film director John Ford, Portland’s most famous sons immortalized in bronze, too much of a reach?
The hot dog king has even spawned his own society.
On the park bench next to him are sidekicks Doug Bither and Chuck Roast. The retirees remember when a hot dog here was 75 cents. “They are delicious,” said Roast, who claimed to have visited Mark’s on June 13, 1983 when Gatti sold his first frank.
Though Gatti had a short stint in insurance decades ago, The University of Maine grad couldn’t take the cubicle life. “I like being self employed and I like working outside.”
He doesn’t eye Portland’s growing fleet of mobile food vendors with animosity, nor does he feel threatened by dietary trends, like veganism, which may exclude the trusty hot dog. But he said business has been up and down.
“My halcyon days were 1985 to 1990 because I was still fairly new and there was not much competition,” he said. “It’s been peaks and valleys ever since.”
Gatti said he thinks the steady popularity of hot dogs will outlive any trends or business climate.
“It’s an American food, like popcorn, cheese burgers and apple pie,” he said. “You have to keep plugging away. I have my little niche I guess.”
How long will the fit 58-year-old keep it up?
“I might do it 10 or 20 more years,” he said. “But I could step away in a year or two and do something else.”