By Corrie Whitmer
For eight years now, Indiana residents have been visiting John A. "Hot Dog John" Minda's downtown hot dog cart for a quick meal and some conversation. But for the third time in those eight years, Minda's license is at risk, and not because of anything he did.
Minda was the first person to get a transient vendor license in Indiana, in 2004. Now, other people are applying for licenses to run food trucks, and the council is, once again, trying to decide whether they will continue allowing food carts and trucks to operate in the borough of Indiana. Minda is, once again, caught in the middle.
The borough council has looked at this question before, back in 2006. The Coney, along with a number of other local businesses, worried that Hot Dog John's would cut into their profits. The borough council decided not to renew Minda's license, but an outpouring of public support for Minda persuaded them to change their decision back then.
This time, council President Nancy Jones was quoted in an Indiana Gazette article as saying that the council's decision will be final, which means that the time to speak up on the issue is now.
A number of downtown businesses are concerned that street vendors don't "give back to the community," as Hastie Kinter, owner of Lucy Rae Gifts & More, put it. Other local businesses have chimed in. They worry again that Hot Dog John and other street vendors take away business from brick-and-mortar establishments, including restaurants.
Minda disputes that. He says he sells about 40 hot dogs a day, when weather permits. At $1.25 apiece, his gross is $50.
"I don't take any business away from anyone," Minda said. "My profit margin is low."
Minda sells just dogs and drinks--hardly competition for the sit-down dining offered at most Indiana restaurants. And he does give back to the community, by giving freebies to people who can't afford them and to preschoolers who visit the nearby Indiana Free Library.
The food trucks are another matter. There's no guarantee that their owners will feel any obligation to the local community. Additionally, food trucks in general have gotten popular lately and their menus are larger and more diverse than the one offered by Minda's cart. They do have the capacity to compete with local businesses more than those businesses apparently are used to.
The borough council has every reason to deny those vendors licenses, or at least regulate them heavily, if they're concerned about protecting local businesses from outside competition.
But Minda's hot dog cart is not a threat. It is a part of this community. It's a gathering place for locals, and a place where people can get something inexpensive to eat.
If the borough is worried about food trucks, council should draft a separate new ordinance to deal with them. Minda and his hot dog cart are a part of downtown Indiana now and for the foreseeable future. Council members would be making a mistake if they revoked his license.
Corrie Whitmer, a junior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Middletown, Pa.