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:
- 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?)
- 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?
- 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)
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.