Hot Dog Therapy: The Life of a D.C. Street Vendor
Mokhtar Sherif has sold food—and listened to his customers—at a single D.C. intersection for more than 20 years
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.
Sherif's manner towards his customers is wholly cordial—perhaps too cordial for his own good. 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. A bit like Lucy from Peanuts, Sherif listens to people who share stories of marital woes, spousal cheating, and drunken nights out.
"Sometimes they need somebody to talk to ... I'm a good listener. But they stay secret. I don't tell anybody else. This is still between me and them."
And unlike Lucy, Sherif doesn't charge five cents for his services, which are free of charge.
Gabrielle Emanuel and Michael Solis
As Sherif peered through the tiny window of his stand, the inside of which was only big enough to comfortably fit a single person, he said that what he enjoys most about the job is the freedom it lends him. He has an official permit to work on the corner of Connecticut and L, and all of the money he earns he gets to keep. Because he owns the stand, he does not have to pay rent or utilities.
"I'm self-employed," Sherif said with a proud grin. "No one has to tell me what to do. It's the best thing if you don't work for anybody in this business."
At the same time, Sherif's freedom is also limited. He acknowledged the difficulties that come with his business, including having to work outside without heat or air conditioning regardless of the weather. A large sturdy umbrella protects Sherif and his goods from the rain, but he finds it difficult to work on blistering summer days and during the frigid winters.
Several years back, Sherif's oldest son used to help him with food preparation and sales. However, his son has since moved from D.C. to pursue a different career and to raise a family. Though Sherif is content with his business, he is happy that his children have been able to work in other fields.
When asked if he would eat the food he serves to his customers, Sherif responded with wide and glossy smile. He only eats street stand food about once or twice a week, admitting that hot dogs are high in cholesterol. At the same time, he knows that hot dogs are what bring in the money; were he to sell Egyptian food instead, he fears not having enough demand for the food to keep himself in business.
That is not to say Sherif would not consider diversifying his menu. When it comes to running his business, Sherif places the interests of his customers before his own.
"The customers keep coming back and ask me if I have this and if I have that, and the next day, I have it, you know. It's just what the customer likes."