Cart cash: Freedom, solidarity, kinship with clients draw entrepreneurs to mobile vending

It’s the end of another day of hot-dog vending at the corner of King and Chestnut streets in downtown Lancaster.

It’s the end of another day of hot-dog vending at the corner of King and Chestnut streets in downtown Lancaster.

Behind the closed window of her shiny, stainless steel cart, Toni Herfel is busy shutting down her steam table and deep fryers.

It’s not the most glamorous job, but the freedom of running one’s own business makes it worthwhile to the New York native.

Herfel has made a lot of friends in the 16 years she has spent at this corner. It is the facet of the job she enjoys the most.

Running a mobile food-

vending business is not for everybody. A person has to be willing to work alone, endure the elements and talk with almost anyone.

Herfel’s cart is open five days a week, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., throughout the entire year. Rain or shine, cold or sunny weather, the entrepreneur puts on her Yankees cap and heads out to the corner.

“This is a heat box over the summer. And it’s cold in the winter. You have your slow days and your good days. It’s harder than it looks,” Herfel said.

No matter how humid or frigid it becomes, the hot-dog

guru said she wouldn’t trade her cart for a desk. There are aspects of the business one cannot find anywhere else, she said.

“There’s no overhead. There is no rent or utilities. The only cost is product and taxes, and I can run this by myself,” Herfel said.

Don Bricker of York cannot run his mobile food business on his own. He owns 28 Bricker’s French Fries trailers. During the year, Bricker’s stands are set up at hundreds of events throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.

Bricker opened the business 43 years ago from a stationary spot in West York. Initially, the stand was a part-time operation for Bricker, who worked as a full-time cop. As the popularity of his french fries grew, he soon realized he had to put away his badge and take his french fries on the road.

“I love meeting people, and the events we set up at are all fun. I never get tired of going to the events,” Bricker said. “You are in this town one day and another on the next.”

You have to be jovial, but it takes more than a smiling face to keep Bricker’s afloat, he said. Scheduling employees is tough because many of Bricker’s part-time employees are teenagers who prefer to have off on weekends and holidays. These just happen to be prime business hours for Bricker. Picking out premium product is another challenge in the potato world.

“Come October, November and December, there are no potatoes in the ground. So you hope they are kept at a constant temperature,” Bricker said. “Any other time, they are fresh-grown. Today, at chains, the french fries are all frozen. We still use fresh potatoes. We peel them here (York), and they’re diced in the trailers. Quality is 100 percent.”

A food vendor has to give customers a reason to keep coming back, vendor Daniel Krehling said.

Krehling’s hot-dog cart has been a daily fixture at the corner of Second and Market streets in downtown Harrisburg for the past eight years. It takes quality food and personality to make it work, he said. It doesn’t hurt to know your way around the city, either.

“You’re not just a hot-dog vendor. I’m a tour guide and an expert at giving change. I am one of the few vendors who speaks other languages. I speak a little French, German and Spanish.”

One look at Krehling’s menu tells customers that he runs a versatile business. It’s hard to imagine where he finds space to keep 35 different toppings in the compact cart. He insists on serving his hot dogs with all the trimmings.

Versatility makes the business interesting, he said. To earn extra cash on weekends, Krehling can hitch up the cart and pull it to catering jobs.

Versatility attracted Ron Beeck of Lower Paxton Township to mobile food vending.

Beeck grew up working in his father’s deli in New York. After operating his own construction business for the past 25 years, he decided to dust off his spatula and go back to his roots.

“I was brought up in the deli business. That formed my outlook on people. I was forced to talk to people in a polite manner,” Beeck said.

Beeck still runs his home-improvement business. By next year at this time, he wants DJ’s Smoke Shack to become a full-time venture.

The shack is unusual. On top of a 24-foot-long trailer sits a log cabin. Inside the cabin there is a fully operational kitchen with deep fryers, a meat slicer and refrigeration units. Toward the front of the wagon sits a large, cavernous meat smoker and grill. Beeck and his family smoke and grill a wide array of meats in the front and sell their food out of the back.

DJ’s Smoke Shack opened several months ago. Beeck named his business after his son, Danny, and daughter, Jessie. He enjoys that he can work side-by-side with his wife and children, he said.

“I love being able to attend all types of festivals and events. We set up at golf outings, birthday parties and all types of festivals,” Beeck said. “I love seeing people happy when they’re eating what we make. That is the biggest reward.”

Mobile food vendors are free spirits. Love for the open air, freedom to run their own business and daily contact with complete strangers seems ingrained in their souls.

Before she hitched her cart up and went home for the night, Herfel still wore a smile on her face. She said happiness in the hot-dog-vending world comes down to one thing.

“You gotta have personality and be people-friendly,” Herfel said. <

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