It's not often that people know the name of their favorite hot dog vendor. But if you follow the sweet smell of grilled meat up 11th Street near Neurolux, you'll find a steady line of people greeting Tim Pennington and his dog Stoli by name. Far from the sizzling chaos of the Main Street vendor circuit, Pennington serves up grilled dogs to a varying crowd--dudes with full sleeve tattoos, girls carrying their heels in their hands and couples steadying each other after a long night on the town. Strumming his banjo in the cold of winter and into the wee hours on warm summer evenings, Pennington has become such a fixture outside Neurolux that people have even started sporting "I Heart Hotdog Guy" T-shirts.
When did you start selling hot dogs?
This is my third year. I started on Superbowl Sunday. I've worked in restaurants for a long time, and I was working for my friend downtown, running her cart. I saw the money she was making, and it was better than the restaurant was paying me. I had to figure out a way to get a cart and get out there and make it.
How did you go about getting set up?
I took a break from the restaurant for a summer and did construction to make some real money. I remember I had to use a credit card to get the hot dog cart shipped, it cost like 400 bucks to ship it. Other than that, I was able to pay all the fees and the licenses and everything ... At the time, I was pushing my cart around, just stacking everything on top of it because it didn't have the grill yet, it just had a cooler.
How did that work out?
It didn't work well at all because the steam from the steam pan kept going into the cooler and everything was melting, so it was obsolete. I decided to get the grill because people were saying, "How come you don't have grilled dogs?" ... So, I bought the grill, had it installed and business went up big time because the aroma is advertising.
So then you decided to set up on the sidewalk outside the Neurolux?
Well, that's where I hang out if I'm going to go out and drink, which I don't do too often. I noticed the people there were all chill and laid-back. I started selling there, and they thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. So, I thought, "This is where I should be."
Have you ever moved the cart somewhere closer to downtown?
I started at the Egyptian, but the kids that cruise, that's their turning point. If the light's red, they sit there with the cars running and all I smell is fumes. It doesn't smell too good down there, and everyone's [turning] 21 every night, every weekend ... they don't care how the dog tastes, they just want something to eat, you know?
So, you're a musician?
Yeah, I usually have my banjo with me and am playing it. But that guy up in the Royal Plaza has been calling the cops on me. Just because he doesn't want me there; I'm legal where I'm setting up. He's always complained about the Neurolux, too ... But their building is soundproof, so he just needs to shut the window. I'm sure he can afford AC living in that place.
What are your hours like?
My hours start in the daytime. I do all my shopping and get everything situated, then I have my son ... From 10:30 p.m. to about 3:30 a.m. is when I'm out there selling. Then it takes another 15 minutes to clean up and unpack. With the shopping and the physical working, it's about eight hours a day to sell part time.
On your biggest night, how many hot dogs do you sell?
New Year's Eve is usually the biggest. I sell over 200 dogs that night. A lot of times, it's people waiting for cabs, and that's always a two-hour wait on New Year's. Thank God no one drives. That's one thing I like about my job is that some people that shouldn't be driving will eat a hot dog and chill out, sober up. Or they'll just get in a cab.
What's the most popular thing people order?
Basque chorizo. I thought that would be a great addition, especially with the Basque community, and it tastes way better than the Mexican chorizo. They're so flavorful, you can eat them plain.
When did you decide to bring in the veggie dogs?
I realized the crowd at the Neurolux is also the people that work at the co-op or live in the North End, so I was thinking that would be a good seller. It's OK. I couldn't make a living off of selling veggie dogs. There's lots of times that people don't even get them at all and I have to throw them away. When some people see the hot dog cart, they think "meat." They don't even read the menu.
Have you developed a rapport with the Neurolux or the cab drivers around you?
The ones that have a rapport with the Neurolux, I know. At Neurolux, they treat me like I'm an employee. They let me go in after they close sometimes to wash my hands or use the restroom.
What are some crazy stories or things you witnessed working outside the Neurolux?
I wish I had a helmet cam, because I can't remember half of the things that I see ... The other day there was a girl walking with her friend towards Mulligan's and I hear them get into an argument. Then I turn around and one of them was running naked back to the Neurolux. I'm like, "Am I seeing what I'm seeing?" ... I see so many things every weekend, it's kind of hard to pinpoint.
Do you feel like you really get to know people who frequent your hot dog stand or the Neurolux?
Yeah, because they want to know me, and I see them all the time and kind of want to know who they are. And I get to meet everyone from every profession, from the unemployed to the super successful. That's the thing about the Neurolux, it's not a bar for a certain group of people, it's for everybody. I think that's why everyone goes there, is just to hang out and have fun. That's why I'm there, is I just like to hang out and have fun if I have to work. ... I'm not going to make it super rich doing this; I'm not going to kid myself. Just as long as I can support myself and my kid.
How do you take your hot dog?
I'm a traditionalist, I like onions and sauerkraut and mustard. I use a good quality meat, so you really don't have to put anything on it.