Hot dogs cut the mustard

Entrepreneur: Through hard work, a Harford man has parlayed a stand outside the courthouseinto a good living.

October 24, 2004|By Joe Eaton | Joe Eaton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It is commonly said that today's college degrees are yesterday's high school diplomas.

But for those who think the days are gone when a person with little more than hustle and nerve could make a good living, consider Dave Mitchell, the hot dog peddler of Bel Air.

Two days before Christmas in 1984, Mitchell parked his car across the street from a bar in Perry Hall and walked across a dark intersection to meet a friend. He did not reach the other side. A car clipped Mitchell and fled, leaving him on the ground, the bones in his right ankle smashed to bits.

Mitchell was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Surgeons fused his ankle bones in a permanent 90-degree angle. Slowly, he learned to walk again, with a hobbling limp.

When he recovered, doctors told Mitchell he should not return to his factory job making boxes. He was eligible for disability benefits, but Mitchell wanted to live what he considered a "normal" life.

"I couldn't make it on disability," he said. "So I figured I better get a job and do something on my own. And that's what I did."

He chose hot dogs. It just seemed like a good idea at the time, he said. So he drove to New Jersey, bought a hot dog cart for $6,800 and set it up in front of the Harford County Courthouse, where he works most afternoons.

Mitchell sells hot dogs for $1 and Polish dogs for $2. After nearly 19 years at the same spot, he is on a first-name basis with many people in the town of Bel Air, including almost all of the lawyers and judges.

On a good day, Mitchell takes home $100. But he has a knack for turning one dollar into three.

From the beginning, Mitchell invested his hot dog profits in houses. He bought them low at auctions, fixed up the houses and sold high. He owns four rentals, in addition to a five-bedroom house in Forest Hill.

"I do all right," Mitchell said. "I don't set the world on fire."

On a recent afternoon, Mitchell drove around Bel Air in the Chevy van he uses to pull his hot dog cart. Within three blocks, he pointed out one house he used to own and another one he hopes to buy.

"See that, it's going on auction next week," he said slowing down in front of a small blue house. "I'll be there."

In addition to his day jobs, Mitchell also started Mitchpro, a commercial cleaning business. He now has six employees, but he still cleans offices himself at night. In August, he took a part-time job as a doorman at a new restaurant/bar in town.

The hot dog man said he works hard because he likes the good things in life. But he is not flashy. The passenger door of his van refuses to stay shut. He dropped over 100 pounds in the past year, but he still wears the baggy shorts and T-shirts of a larger man. He refuses to wear a tie on principle.

"All these guys put a shirt and tie on. They probably have less money in their pocket than I do," he said. "Why should I put a shirt and tie on and act like I am a millionaire?"

Mitchell sees himself as a role model for the down and out. He has no patience for the unemployed and wants to be on Oprah to give them advice. There are lots of jobs out there, Mitchell insists. He has an ice cream cart in his garage that he is sure someone could turn into a moneymaker.

"There is a always a way out. You just got to get to it," he said.

His up-by-your-bootstraps story is almost unbelievable, until you consider Mitchell's frantic, almost manic energy. He talks at a hectic clip. He fidgets. He is always on his way somewhere.

"There is more than one of him," said Terry Hanley, a Bel Air town commissioner, who has known Mitchell for more than 20 years. "Everywhere you go, you see him."

A hot dog stand is the perfect place for a wheeler-dealer like Mitchell. He makes contacts, swings deals and promotes local and state Republican candidates, all the while dressing up hot dogs with ketchup and mustard.

But Mitchell is not satisfied. He wants to be a doorman at a casino, if only casino gambling were legal in the state. In Mitchell's mind, he would know all the customers by name.

"You've got to have a guy out schmoozing the crowd to make some money," he said. "I don't have the looks of a movie star or anything. But I have the personality, that getup."

For that job, he said he will even put on a tie.

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