PORTLAND – The only certainties in life, said Benjamin Franklin, are death and taxes. For 28 years, Portlanders have also been able to count on Mark’s Hot Dogs.

Six days a week since 1983, Mark Gatti has operated his red food cart at Tommy’s Park, near the corner of Middle and Exchange streets. Whether it’s sunny or snowing, hot or cold, Gatti is there, serving hot dogs, Italian sausages and vegetarian spring rolls to a steady stream of loyal customers.

“I’ve had hot dogs all over the world, and his are the best,” said Bill Dalbec, 69, who has been coming to Mark’s Hot Dogs since it opened. “Anybody who can stand out here all day long in the winter is my kind of guy.”

Mark’s Hot Dogs is one of 20 licensed food carts this year in Portland. Some years, as many as 40 carts have been licensed. The carts don’t have designated locations, but they tend to gather in Monument Square, the Old Port and Marginal Way.

While hot dogs are a food-cart staple, there are plenty of alternatives for anyone who’s looking for a quick and tasty lunch. Food carts in Portland offer everything from burgers and lobster rolls to ice cream, pizza, falafel, cookies, tacos, barbecue and shish kabobs.

On the water side of Commercial Street, near the Moulton Street intersection, Jill Bourgeois sells lobster cakes and burgers with natural, grass-fed beef at The Burger Boat Grill food cart.

The lobster cakes — thick patties of Maine lobster, shrimp and bread crumbs — come from the award-winning Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. in Topsham.

On a recent day, Bourgeois, 53, who bought the food cart last year, hopped around the lime-green cart in shades and a light purple shirt, mingling with the tourists and waterfront residents who pass by each day.

A key to having a successful food cart, owners said, is being a “people person.”

“I love getting to hang out with the locals,” said Bourgeois, who lives in Auburn. “If you like yukkin’ it up, this is a pretty great job.”

For some — like Gatti, who’s 52 — owning a food cart is a year-round job. For many, like Bourgeois, it’s a seasonal endeavor. Many of the city’s food carts are only open from April to October.

On good days, some draw as many as 20 customers an hour during the prime lunch hours. At $4 to $6 per lunch — food and drink — that can bring as much as $100 an hour. It’s certainly enough to make a living.

Among other benefits, owners don’t pay rent. They also have few or no employees, and set their own hours.

But there are downsides. Much of the vendors’ success depends on the weather. Extreme heat or heavy rain can drive customers away, and foot traffic slows in the fall and winter.

Also, there’s no health insurance, sick pay or paid vacation time.

And it isn’t cheap to start in the business. Food carts can cost several thousand dollars — even used carts. And the city and state tax them heavily.

There’s a $295 annual license from the city. There’s a $110 annual inspection fee. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services charges a $60 license fee. And the city charges a $70 cooler fee, which is necessary for food storage.

If vendors want to work after 10 p.m., that will cost them another $60.

Still, the people who do it say the positives far exceed the negatives. Eric Hughes, 22, opened Eric’s Pizza last year.

Hughes, a graduate of Strive U., for students with development disabilities, always loved carnivals and the food vendors who populate them. After befriending a pizza vendor at the Cumberland County Fair, Hughes decided to open Portland’s first pizza cart.

He and Jacqueline Fournier, 21, sell cheese and pepperoni by the slice on Commercial Street, as well as sandwiches from Anthony’s Italian Kitchen.

They also sell the cheapest water and soda around ($1), a big attraction on hot days.

“It’s great to be outside and see so many people every day,” Hughes said. “You get to meet so many different people as they come off the boats.”

Less than a block way, Carney Hamilton, 21, sells hot dogs and lemonade at Jen’s Hot Dogs, another popular food cart. Jen’s serves the freshest lemonade in the city. Hamilton squeezes the lemons right in front of customers as their hot dogs simmer on the grill.

“Everyone’s always like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know fresh-squeezed meant that,’” said Hamilton, who moonlights as a University of Southern Maine student.

For customers, the appeal is a quick, fresh lunch without tips or tax. Even in a food-driven city like Portland, it’s hard to find lunch for less than $10.

For owners like Gatti, food carts are a way of life. After college, Gatti left a job with John Hancock Financial because he didn’t have a passion for the work. At 23 years old, while working temp jobs, he decided to buy a food cart.

“I only meant to do this two or three years,” he said. “I’ve now been here 28 years, and I still love what I do.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or at:

[email protected]