Over 40,000 people have signed a petition urging New York City to help “Hot Dog King” Dan Rossi, a local celebrity whose cart has been stationed outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 15 years. It’s one of the most coveted vending spots in New York, but Rossi says that poor city oversight has created too much competition along the Fifth Avenue stretch and ultimately forced him to sleep onsite or lose his place.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Rossi said he’s spent his nights in his cart or nearby van for 11 years.
“In the beginning when we first started this, we’d do the normal things,” said Rossi. “At the end of the day, you’d take your cart back to the commissary, clean it for the next day.” Then one day, Rossi arrived to find someone in his spot. He claims that over the past decade, the Department of Health (DOH) — which regulates vendors — has not been properly enforcing its rules.
The allegations stem from the fact that disabled veterans like himself are allowed special vending rights in certain areas of the city, including on Fifth Avenue. (The New York regulation was initially enacted to help Civil War veterans earn money through street peddling and has been both upheld and altered since.) Rossi explained a current scheme, referred to as “rent-a-vet” in a 2016 Politico story detailing the problem, in which vending companies illegally pay disabled veterans for their permits to sell in coveted areas such as outside the Met.
A DOH spokesperson told Hyperallergic that someone with a disabled veteran license must be present at the cart using that license. But Rossi thinks this rule does not get properly enforced, which leads to an overpopulated stretch outside the Met, with vendors who are not disabled veterans taking up the spots.
“If my cart is not there or I’m not there physically, they would take the location,” said Rossi. “That would be the end of me.”
“Either I leave, or I sleep there at night,” Rossi continued. “I have to put a roof over my head; I have to sleep there at night.” Rossi’s wife and daughters live in Mamaroneck in Westchester County.
The DOH spokesperson said that the city does not “‘reserve’ vending spots.” “When the next day of vending starts, if someone else sets up at the same spot, they are free to vend there if they have the appropriate permits,” the representative said. “We have no interest in taking anyone’s place away. However, people also can’t leave their carts unattended.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Rossi grew up in the Bronx, served as a Marine in Vietnam, then came to lease a fleet of New York City street carts in the late 1980s and 1990s. He waged a battle against Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani when the former lobbied to limit Midtown vendors, which left Rossi with a single cart. In 2007, the “Hot Dog King” moved his small operation to the Met.
Rossi has been famous for a while, but he became a social media phenomenon when he was featured by Internet personality New York Nico. Since then, he has amassed 12,000 Instagram followers (his daughter Elizabeth runs his accounts). Rossi has been the subject of multiple news profiles over the last decade and half, and last year, he was featured in the Netflix series Street Food USA. He also wrote a book last year, titled The New York Hot Dog King: From Rags to Riches to Less Than Rags, in which he chronicles his fight with Trump, Giuliani, and the city. He’s made waves for years, and former Mayor Bloomberg even directly addressed his vending issue in 2012, but nothing seemed to change. Rossi said his current problems with the city are “personal” and that he sees himself as an advocate for disabled veterans across New York City.
Across the city, other street vendors are facing pressure, too. In Flushing, Queens, city councilmember Sandra Ung said illegal vendors there were causing a public safety issue and launched a petition to remove unlicensed sellers. It is nearly impossible, however, to attain a legal vending permit in New York City: There are only 853 and the 12,000-person waitlist closed ten years ago.
Rossi says the alleged vending enforcement issues also pose a financial problem for him because they create too much competition. He said he was never able to bounce back to his pre-COVID earnings.
When The Met shut its doors at the height of the pandemic, Rossi’s business “zeroed out.”
“We managed to get through it,” he said. “But it was tough.”
Now, the Met’s “Hot Dog King” has over 42,000 people backing him. Rossi’s daughters created the petition for their father. “I think it’s great. Will it help me?” asked Rossi. “It depends on how deep the city has gotten itself in trouble.”