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Frankly, The Hot Dog Lady is an Elmhurst Institution

The Elmhurst City Council votes this Monday, April 7th on a proposal to change the ordinance regarding mobile pushcart vendors.

There has always been something quite Mayberry-like about the summer culture of Elmhurst.  Joke all you want about comparisons between Barney Fife and the Elmhurst Police Department, but I mean that whole-heartedly.  It's just pleasant to see some of the same recreational activities happening around town each summer:  Kids heading over to East End Pool, bicyclists and runners filling up the Prairie Path, families enjoying our beautiful parks, and downtown Elmhurst hustling and bustling with shoppers, eaters and drinkers.

But I can't think of a more significant summer icon in the downtown area than Pamela Uslander, "The Hot Dog Lady of Elmhurst".  Her mobile hot dog vending cart, with its bright yellow and red umbrella, has been a staple at York Street and the Schiller Passageway for more than two decades, and buying a hot dog from her is a summer tradition for many of those who live near or work in the downtown area.  

That custom may be inching closer to an end, however, as the Elmhurst City Council votes Monday on whether to eliminate her spot as a designated location for pushcart mobile vendors. According to a report drafted by the Elmhurst Public Affairs and Safety Committee, they want Uslander to move her business across York Street and onto the City Centre corner, if she wishes to continue selling hot dogs in Elmhurst.  While the move seems minor and fairly inconsequential to Uslander's potential sales, there are a few key points to keep in mind:

  1. A 2011 letter from the City Centre Board - re-introduced at the Public Affairs and Safety Committee earlier this year, by the way - expressed the Board's view that their interest is to protect permanent bricks and mortar buinesses.  Now she's being invited to set up shop on their very own corner?  Let me rephrase that:  She's being invited to set up shop "not less than 55 feet east of York Street" (Does that place her cart in one of the fountains?)
  2. Moving to the east side of York St. puts Meatheads, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle and Subway restaurants all within 100 yards of her back.  How long will it take before one or more of them asks her to move away from their front door?
  3. She's been in the same spot for 23 years, longer than most downtown Elmhurst businesses have been in existence!  People peer through the windows of their workplaces two or more blocks away to look for her umbrella, which indicates she is open.  They do the same from Addison Street by looking down the Schiller Passageway.  They know where to find her.  

The natural question here is:  Why is the city doing this now?  Why has this issue come up in 2014, and not last year, or the year before that?  According to Uslander, it's the owner of York Theatre, Willis Johnson, leading the charge to move her hot dog stand.  Public Affairs and Safety Committee minutes verify that he wants her to move.

How ironic is it that York Theatre, arguably the greatest landmark in downtown Elmhurst and one of the oldest businesses in town is going after The Hot Dog Lady?  This is a place operating under the name "Classic Cinemas" and one that thrives on the nostalgic feel of its history, its signage and its ambiance.  Uslander's business is just as classic as the York Theatre's, in my opinion.

Johnson not only owns the York Theatre, but much of the property south of 2nd Street and leading up to the Schiller Passageway (where Uslander operates) and it includes more than one restaurant/food shop.  So what's he up to with this?

  • Is he simply protecting the businesses that lease property from him?
  • Does he sell less popcorn in the theatre because of The Hot Dog Lady?
  • Is he simply acting in the city's best interest? (He's on the Board of Directors for City Centre)
The Public Affairs and Safety Committee is using terms like "congestion", "obstruction" and "possible construction" to explain the proposed amendment to the ordinance (which also includes eliminating mobile cart permits at the corner of 2nd Street and Addison Avenue, the potential site for a six-story parking deck).    How "Mayberry" does this make you feel now?  This sounds more like Windy City politics to me, and frankly it's just too complicated to thoroughly navigate through all the facts, assumptions and accusations.  Regardless of the reasons or interests involved, I don't think it's right to make her move.

I understand that there are literally dozens of restaurants/food shops in downtown Elmhurst, each paying property taxes and other fees associated with being a bricks and mortar business.  But there is an old-fashioned charm to The Hot Dog Lady's trade, and whether you buy hot dogs from her or not, it's part of the attraction to downtown Elmhurst, the same way the City Centre fountains are, and the same way the blazing lightbulbs of the York Theatre sign are.  In addition, Uslander argues that she can't open when it's raining or if it's too cold, and that she only sells one product, so she's at a disadvantage in some respects to other places selling food.  

Elmhurst is filled with small businesses like The Hot Dog Lady's, and many of them are just as iconic:  Hamburger Heaven, Al's Hobby Shop, and Pizza Palace, just to name a few.  Many other small businesses in town close down every year because they can't remain profitable (Plass Appliances, My Favorite Toy Store, etc., etc., etc.).

So let's not get in the way of another small business trying to make a buck.    

Pamela Uslander has started an online petition at Change.org to ask Mayor Steve Morley and the City Council to let her continue doing business at the same location.  She is hoping to gain as many signatures as possible before the City Council meeting this Monday, April 7th.  Click the link below to sign the petition.
http://www.change.org/petitions/mayor-steven-m-morley-city-of-elmhurst-council-members-the-hot-dog-l...

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jim Court April 05, 2014 at 12:10 AM
Anything that brings a positives and festive fib to the downtown should be encouraged. I would ad more lighting, banners, seating, chess tables, balloons, music, entertainment, and any other idea that creates a positive atmosphere. We need to create a destination point. I would add canopies to protect from the elements. I would make everything perfectly clean. We need a festive and fun-filled sense of place and the creation of a place where community comes together in a positive way.
Tony Salerno April 05, 2014 at 01:32 AM
Truth be told... Salerno's Red Hots was the first hot dog vendor to operate in downtown Elmhurst. My father Joseph and I began serving concessions in Berens Park during men's nightly softball games. We had an agreement with the park district. I believe that was in 1989. A year or two later we secured what may have been the first permit to operate a hot dog cart in Elmhurst's downtown area. As life long residents of Elmhurst we were excited to setup our hot dog cart in downtown. We were not well received by the brick and mortar businesses. On the very first day the police were called in several times. They frankly stopped and harassed us daily. They enforced the codes that required us to move continuously unless we were serving customers and we couldn't stop for more than 10 minutes nor could we be on the same side of a block more than twice in one day. We set up daily for roughly three weeks before we were run out of downtown. The downtown businesses were successful with the help of the Elmhurst police. We weren't able to establish a regular routine and presence. As residents of Elmhurst since 1964 we were shocked that a summer or two later a woman from Bensenville was able to set up a cart in the very same spot we were removed from. Rumor had it she was related to or had been connected to someone in the political scape of the City of Elmhurst. But, we'll never know the truth behind her 23 year run in Elmhurst's downtown... We moved on to Villa Park where my father "Joe the hot dog man" was welcomed and had a 17 year run before his passing in 2009. Hey, I wouldn't mind operating a cart this summer in downtown Elmhurst in honor of my dad. After what we were put through years ago, having any permanent location would be great. And that's the rest of the story...
Pamela Uslander April 05, 2014 at 01:45 PM
Hi, I wanted to take a moment to Thank You all for your kind words, FB likes, shares and petition signatures. Pam p.s. "News told, rumors heard, truth implied, facts buried." Toba Beta
Pamela Uslander April 05, 2014 at 02:12 PM
Petition is doing great! We have now hit 700 signatures. Thanks again.

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