Mark Gatti’s first day of work in 1983 at his then-brand new Mark’s Hot Dogs stand in the Old Port did not go well.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said. “I didn’t get here until later, maybe like 11:30 (a.m.) and there was already a line of about four or five people. I didn’t get the hot dogs cooked until about 12, and then I was struggling to take apart the links.”
On top of that, Gatti, then 24, accidentally squeezed a mustard bottle too hard, spraying a well-dressed woman.
“Yeah, so it was hectic for those first few days, I had to work the kinks out,” Gatti said.
On Thursday, Gatti will mark his 30th anniversary of slinging hot dogs from his red wooden street cart on the edge of Tommy’s Park, at the corner of Middle and Exchange Streets in the Old Port. He sells dogs with various toppings, Italian sausages with peppers and onions, chips, sodas and Thai spring rolls in the summer.
On a recent afternoon, Gatti stood in his customary spot, chatting with customers, his hands blurry with motion inside the cart as he assembled an “Old Porker” hot dog.
“My son came up with the name, as kind of a play on Old Port, you know,” Gatti said of the $3 specialty dog featuring sour cream, bacon and sauteed onions. He and his wife created it after a dining table session in February testing different topping combinations.
Gatti came up with the idea for a hot dog cart after working in Colorado Springs, Colo., in public relations for an insurance company in the early 1980s. He said the job was stressful and the economy dipped, so he saved up $5,000 to move back home to Maine. He applied for a couple of sales jobs, trying to make ends meet and eventually decided to emulate the food carts he’d seen out west. He and his father built the little red cart that he still uses today.
After 30 years, he’s honed his technique. A typical day starts about 6 a.m., when Gatti starts gathering supplies for the stand. He pulls up to Tommy’s Park about 9 a.m. each day and takes an hour or so to unload the cart and get set up – a step that takes longer if it snowed the night before, because he has to shovel out his spot on the sidewalk. From 10:30 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., Gatti is at his stand, doing what he’s been doing since 1983. He’s usually there Monday through Saturday, unless there’s more than three inches of snow, heavy rain or he’s catering an event like a wedding reception, he said.
His day ends about 6 p.m., when he loads the cart back on his truck and goes home to clean his utensils.
Gatti will sell anywhere from 150 hot dogs to 200 on a good day, he said. He declined to say how much he makes per day, but estimated he’s sold 840,001 hot dogs over 30 years – adding on the one he sold to a regular customer while he was calculating the number.
When he first started out, he sold a regular hot dog for 60 cents. Today, they go for $2.50.
But it isn’t just his hot dogs that keeps the regular customers returning.
“I’ve been coming here about 15 years, Mark’s a cool guy,” said Peter Smith, who works as a computer operations manager at Network Systems Incorporated on York Street. “Oh and the dogs are OK, too,” he said, jokingly.
“Oh, thanks Peter,” Gatti said, laughing as he prepared Smith’s usual request of two dogs.
With his friendly demeanor and smile, Gatti’s personality is a big part of why people keep coming back, customers said. He greets people with a “Hi, brother,” or “Hi, friend,” and chats with passersby about the Boston Bruins, the Boston Red Sox or the weather.
Gene Fetteroll stopped by Gatti’s stand on his way to a medical appointment to get a hot dog with mustard on the bottom for his wife, who waited in the car.
“I think he’s stayed here 30 years by being honest, personable and dependable,” said Fetteroll, who has been coming to Gatti’s stand since he moved to South Portland in 1998. “And he smiles a lot, you know?”
Fetteroll gets his wife a hot dog about once or twice a week, but eschews them himself for health reasons, he said. Still, he’s always glad to see Gatti at his usual spot.
“You know, he’s dedicated and he’s not giving up,” Fetteroll said. “What he does is not rocket science, but the way he does it gives it that rocket science dimension.”
Gatti said that talking with customers like Fetteroll ranks high on his list of favorite things about the job. He also likes being his own boss, but isn’t too fond of the frigid temperatures in winter.
“I have a love for working outside, and I know I’m from Maine, but I don’t like the cold weather,” he said. “I was out here wearing eight or nine layers in the winter.”
The stand does offer a source of warmth when needed: Gatti said he’ll often leave one of the wooden panels open on the serving window to let the hot air from the steamer warm him up. Sometimes he’ll dump some hot water in his coolers to keep the drinks from freezing.
“But if the sodas start to freeze, it’s probably time to go home,” he said.
Over the years, Gatti has had his share of strange experiences, including the parade of about two dozen topless women, a few topless men and onlookers that gathered in Tommy’s Park on April 3, 2010.
“There was a bunch of people,” Gatti said. “And I was serving ladies that were topless – about five or six – so that was pretty unique. I never thought that would happen in my lifetime.”
Gatti said he probably won’t do any actual celebrating of his anniversary until July, because of other family events going on in June. He said he plans to be at his usual Old Port spot with his red cart for the next several years. And even after 30 years of selling them, Gatti still isn’t sick of his main fare.
“I love hot dogs,” he said. “I’ll never get tired of them. Maybe that makes me unique.”