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.