Hot Dog Therapy: The Life of a D.C. Street Vendor


Gabrielle Emanuel and Michael Solis

To view a video slide show and interview with Mohktar Sherif, click here.

The corner of Connecticut and L, just south of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., is designed for transience. Vehicles constantly pass it, as do pedestrians, many of whom travel via the Farragut North metro station just one block away. With a wide selection of stores, gyms, banks, restaurants, and businesses nearby, the intersection appears like any other walk people must cross on their way to their destinations.

Mokhtar Sherif is one of the few people in D.C. who has established a sense of permanence at an intersection. A native Egyptian, the 53-year-old father of three is the owner of "Sherif's Specials," a food stand on the northwest corner of Connecticut and L. There he sells hot dogs, fruit, candy, gum, drinks, chips, muffins, and other goods to passersby five days a week, from 5:30 AM to 4:30 PM.

Sherif has over 20 years under his belt at the same location, and he first opened the stand in 1990 with the help of a friend who taught him the basics for running a business. The transition was bumpy, and it took Sherif a few weeks to learn the English names of the food he was selling, which he needed to translate from Arabic.

In addition to serving food, Sherif doubles as a counselor for many customers who feel they can speak candidly with the warm and welcoming business owner.

Leaning through his stand's small rectangular window, Sherif spoke to us the way a father would while sharing stories around a campfire. His eyes shifted to the left and right before he shared the secret to his best-selling item—the hot dog—which goes for an affordable $1.50. Whereas other vendors Sherif knows use canned or premade products, Sherif prepares his food with fresh ingredients and serves toppings such as cooked onions, chili, grated cheese, relish, mustards, hot sauce, pepper, and sauerkraut.

Sherif's busiest time of day is between 11 AM and 2 PM, but like most small business owners he has felt the effects of the recent economic meltdown. He estimated that over the past three years his sales have decreased by about 50 percent. Working on the street, he has observed firsthand the desperate measures people will take during difficult economic times. His worst "customers" tend to be those who don't want to pay for his goods at all. Every once and a while someone will run by and steal a drink or a bag of chips. Others simply ask for free food or drinks.

"If he really needs it, you know, it's okay," Sherif said. "If he's homeless or something, we can give him a piece of food. But sometimes the people play around. Can I have this free, and can I have this free? No. I can lose my business like that."

Still, Sherif laughed at the idea of "Sherif's Specials" tanking.

Even some of Sherif's so-called good customers snatch food every now and then, but with a promise to pay him back later. Halfway through our discussion with Sherif, a middle-aged man ran by the stand, picked up an ice cube from one of the open coolers, and tossed it at the unsuspecting Sherif. The customer then grabbed a soft drink and ran off, shouting in what sounded like a New York accent that he'd pay Sherif back later. Chuckling, Sherif told us that the man was a regular who always keeps his word.

Presented by

Gabrielle Emanuel and Michael Solis

Gabrielle Emanuel is a Lombard Fellow working on water access and water purification in Bandiagara, Mali. Michael Solis is a human rights worker, journalist, and fiction writer from New Jersey. More

Gabrielle Emanuel first became interested in the intersection between food and social justice as a student at Dartmouth College, where she organized weekly meals for the homeless community and taught cooking lessons at the local family shelter. She is now a Lombard Fellow working on water access and water purification in Bandiagara, Mali. Next year, as a Rhodes Scholar, she will continue her studies at Oxford. She has published articles and photography nationally, including in the Annals of Internal Medicine and The Chicago Tribune.

Michael Solis is a human rights worker, journalist, and fiction writer from New Jersey. A graduate of Princeton University and the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway, he is currently working for OYE Adelante Jovenes (The Organization for Youth Empowerment) in El Progreso, Honduras. There he is helping to develop the leadership and capacity of at-risk Honduran youth while sharing his love for the creative arts.

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