The corner of Middle and Exchange streets is the epicenter of downtown Portland life. On one corner is Starbucks. Across the street, Tommy’s Park. There are high-end retailers like the Portland Salt Cellar and Stonewall Kitchen, Bard Coffee, and multiple banks and investment firms. You can see someone skateboarding in Post Office Park while overhearing a conversation between lawyers about a civil case in district court just up the street.
But the anchor to this quintessential spot in downtown Portland is Mark Gatti of Mark’s Hot Dogs.
Mark's hot dog stand sits between two benches across the street from Camden National Bank and next to Bard. From there, he's been selling hot dogs, sausages and drinks for 34 years. That is a lot of hot dogs.
A social worker by training, Mark has gotten to know a lot of people. On the warm sunny day I was there, he talked politics with one patron, discussed the pros and cons of a rock band concert with another, shared stories about his family with a third, and listened intently as a fourth talked about his son and the changes happening in his life.
Mark says when he was a social worker he worked with disabled adults in group homes, but running his hot dog stand has been his primary job for many years. April through October are Mark’s busiest months, but he’s out there nearly every day. “In the summer, when there’s a lunch rush, it's pretty busy,” Mark says. "Sometimes there’s a line, but people don’t seem to mind, it moves quick.”
Mark’s hot dog cart is rather impressive. Big, red and all wood. The front and sides are festooned with stenciled dancing hot dog characters. When Mark opens the hinged cabinet doors on the front, steam wafts out and the air is filled with the aroma of hot dogs. Even if you don’t like the taste, the smell alone is enough to make you smile. A lot of people just stop to have their photos taken with the cart. Mark doesn’t seem to mind. Mark’s hot dog cart is probably on thousands of social media sites.
Mark says he once sold ten hot dogs to one person. “He said he was really hungry," Mark says with a chuckle. "The guy said give me four of them plain and six loaded. I watched him eat all ten. He was thin but he managed to eat them all."
While there wasn’t much of a line when I was there last summer, those who did stop by the hot dog stand were as diverse as the neighborhood businesses around it. An older gentleman and is wife stopped by, tourists. “I’ll take a chili dog, loaded and don’t wrap it, I’ll eat it right here.” His wife took a picture and he and Mark made small talk. Another customer wearing a kitchen apron asked for a hot dog to go and then disappeared inside Stonewall Kitchen. Another customer, Starbucks cup in hand and a shopping bag, asked for a sausage to go. Two people stopped by asking for directions to Commercial Street.
What does it take to make a hot dog stand become and enduring fixture in the Old Port? I think it takes Mark. Mark’s easygoing, affable style is welcoming to everyone, regardless if they're asking for directions, getting their picture taken, or are a paying customer. For $2.75, you can get a great hot dog with everything on it and the chance for an uplifting conversation. Or even someone who will just listen intently and smile.
A social worker who runs an established and respected hot dog stand in the Old Port. One that is welcome to everyone, where you are guaranteed to be greeted with a smile. If that isn’t what’s great about Portland, I don’t know what is.
- Published in Columns