The Metropolitan Museum of Art has long been my favorite spot in the city. Right in the middle of the entry way stairs, there are two hotdog stands. They don’t resemble the typical carts you’ll see anywhere else in the city. There are no tacky decals or colorful stock photos. Instead, these stands maintain a minimalistic color scheme contained by a cleanliness, a sharpness, and a sturdy design, which feel appropriately placed in front of a great museum. The hot dogs are grilled to perfection, beating the quality of every other vendor in the city. Whenever I visit The Met I also visit Dan Rossi’s hot dog cart.
On a freezing January morning, we sat inside his heated van parked in front of the famous cart. I’d read that Dan sleeps in his van to keep his prime real estate location, but held few expectations for how our conversation might develop. “Nobody should be put through what I was put through,” he told me. “For what reason? I didn’t do anything wrong. I was trying to help these guys.”
Dan Rossi grew up in the Bronx and graduated high school to fulfill a promise he made to his mother. After graduation, he enlisted in the Vietnam War as a marine. He would eventually become a Sargent, shooting machine guns from helicopters, rescuing wounded soldiers, and serving three tours. He was injured in an accident and honorably discharged.
“In Vietnam when somebody got hit,” he told me, “we’d fly in, grab the wounded and get them out. And there was nothing personal. We’d bandage them up, keep them alive until we got them to the hospital. A half hour, it was over, you didn’t see them again.”
He came home and was stationed in Saint Albans, NY to work at a hospital for wounded soldiers.
“Now I’m in the hospital, talking to the guys who are comin’ back, all blown up. Every day. So, you go in there, you talk to the guy, the next day he’s not there, he died. Everything would go to your head. And I had to shut all that down. That’s why I hit the bottle.”
He soon came back home to the Bronx and years had passed. His friends were older, had families, 9 to 5 jobs and no way of connecting with someone who had been through the hellscape of the war in Vietnam. Old friends would buy Dan drinks and as soon as the glass hit the table, they would disappear across the bar.
While sitting at the bar one night, someone told Dan that his uncle’s house was on fire. “What are you talking about?” he said. He went outside and witnessed it for himself. Luckily his uncle and asthmatic aunt both survived the blaze. “These were not rich people,” he told me. Once the fire was out, Dan ran into the smoldering house alongside firefighters, salvaging furniture and any possessions he could.
“What are you going to do?” Dan asked his uncle. “I’m going to rebuild it,” he said. Over the next year, Dan, his cousins and his uncle rebuilt the entire house – the framing, the plumbing, the electrical, everything.
“This brought me back,” Dan said. “I was able to stop Vietnam and put myself into this work.”
While getting back on his feet and distanced from the bottle, a work friend suffered a heart attack. Afraid for his health, the friend wanted to try vending and asked Dan to build a pushcart for him as a favor.
“By the time I built him the cart, he didn’t want it no more. He felt healthy,” Dan recalled. “So I put an ad in the paper and I sold it in one day. I doubled my money. So, I told my wife, ‘I’m gonna build another one of these carts.’” Then he built another. And another.
The money he would earn from his pushcart business led to the purchase of three companies which owned a total of 499 New York City vending permits. He then took those permits, began leasing them for just five dollars a day and gave his handmade pushcarts to lessees. “I was just leasing a cart for 5 dollars a day, and at the end of two years you owned a cart, so it was a great deal.”
He quickly amassed a reasonable fortune, grew the largest vending company in NYC history, and purchased a home on six acres in Connecticut while providing for his wife, daughters and growing family.
During business hours, Dan was in the shop building carts and his wife was with their two little girls in a playpen in the office. “We are a family business, that’s what it is,” he said. “That’s what we were. We were nothing more than that.”
As quickly as they appeared, Dan’s good fortune would soon dissolve.
In 1991, Donald Trump began a campaign to remove disabled veterans from the area surrounding Trump Tower. In a letter obtained years later, Trump wrote “Do we allow Fifth Ave., one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging and seriously downgrading the area?”
With the help of Trump and the Fifth Avenue Association, Mayor Giuliani worked to pass legislation which restricted vendors from operating within high profile areas – primarily Midtown Manhattan. Dan Rossi not only held the most permits but was also a vocal advocate for disabled veterans and the vending profession. Because of his professional accomplishments and his knack for attracting media attention, Dan was an easy target to demonize, which only helped support Giuliani’s campaign.
“There was a bill signing and we went because it involved vending,” Dan recalled. “And we walked in and every TV station in the city was in there with their cameras focused on Giuliani. And behind Giuliani were five of these big graphs – and at the top it said, “and this is how much Dan Rossi owns of this industry.”
Dan owned 16% of all vending permits in New York City and while that amounted to 499, 51 other companies shared the city’s remaining 2,601. Giuliani hoped to make it seem as though Dan held a monopoly. For a little perspective, The Shubert Organization owns 40% of all Broadway theaters while two other companies own most of the remaining.
Dan continued to recall, “one of the reporters says, ‘Okay, so he owns all these permits, what has he done wrong?’ The mayor couldn’t answer him.
“When the conference was over, I walked over to him and I says, ‘I’m Dan Rossi. And why were you saying all these things about me? What’s your problem?’ And Giuliani’s got his head looking at the floor. I says, ‘I’m talking to you. You said vile things about me in front of all these people, in front of all these cameras, say it to my face.’ And he’s looking down and I was going over the table and my attorney grabbed me, and he said ‘Are you crazy, Dan?’ ‘What do you mean, crazy?’” Dan replied, “This man’s trying to destroy my life. Over nothing.’ They ushered Giuliani out the door.”
In 1894, a Civil War era law was passed which allowed disabled veterans to sell goods on any sidewalk and in any park in New York City. In 1991, with the help of The Fifth Avenue Association, Donald Trump and Mayor Giuliani, the law was amended, limiting where disabled vets could sell goods and banning them from Midtown Manhattan. Four years later, the state passed further legislation limiting the number of permits any individual could own to one. Overnight, Dan Rossi lost 498 permits, for which he had recently purchased for over one million dollars.
“The worst is that,” Dan recalled, “Okay, they took our permits but we still got a shop and the guys are still workin. And then we go to bring the carts down [to be inspected] and the guy says, ‘Are these Dan Rossi’s carts? Fail ‘em.’” For years, Dan’s carts never had a problem passing inspections, and suddenly they couldn’t help but fail. Because they failed inspection, they were unable to be sold and his business soon closed.
In an attempt to reclaim his life and the rights of other disabled vets, Dan continued fighting in one court case after another, often representing himself but bleeding away any money he and his family once had. And then it got worse.
“My wife had a stroke while the turmoil was going on. I stayed in the hospital with her for 90 days. And when we got out, and we lost our house, she was sitting in the van next to me, we had nowhere to go, and I didn’t know what to do. I completely shut down. And she says to me, ‘As long as we’re together everything’s ok.’
“Now here’s a woman coming back from a stroke. I took two years just to get her walking and talking. She saw it for what it really was. All this other sh** don’t mean anything. We’re together, we’re gonna rebuild. She couldn’t comprehend the position we were in. [He laughs] We were in a position. My 90-year-old aunt took us in to live with her for a month. We lived with her for a month until I could start to think.”
Dan went back to fixing up people’s homes. He would renovate a basement which led to renovating a bathroom which led to a kitchen and so forth. One day he received a call from a disabled vet who was trying to vend in front of The Met. The vet was being harassed by police and asked for Dan’s help. Dan went to the steps to see what was happening. The vet was arguing for his rights to vend but eventually left.
Dan thought, “Ya know, I still got one permit they left me with.” He called up a vender who he had built a cart for years ago and asked to borrow it. “Take it Dan,” the vendor told him. He put his permit on the cart and parked it on 79th and Fifth Avenue. Police quickly showed up and told him to leave. Dan refused. Then they came back again and again. They would give Dan tickets and he would throw them away. “Captains were coming,” he told me. “Why would you send a captain for a vending issue if I wasn’t legal?”
The police continued showing up, trying to intimidate him. “Listen, I’m not here for trouble,” he’d tell them. “I’m just trying to get on my feet. But I’m tired of you guys comin’ here four times a day intimidating me. I don’t go for intimidation. Next time you come, I’m gonna move ten feet closer to the middle [of The Met’s main entrance]. Every time you come, I’m gonna move ten feet. When I get in the middle, I’m not gonna move. The best thing you could do is leave me alone.”
But the police continued showing up. And Dan moved 10 feet closer and then another 10 feet closer and then closer again, until finally he arrived to where he is today. In the middle of the most valuable vending spot in the world.
“When you’re in a position of power, you gotta do good,” Dan told me. “My nature destroyed my whole family because I wouldn’t give in. It’s okay for me to be knocked down. That’s ok. But they knocked down everything. My family, my wife – there’s no question my wife had a stroke over this, there’s no question. The stress on her was unbelievable.”
If his cart is ever abandoned, the city will remove it and another vender will quickly replace him. To protect his spot, Dan sleeps in his van next to his cart. He’s slept in his van or in his food cart every single night for the past six years.
“I get to go home every Wednesday night for two, three hours. Wednesday nights. And then I come right back. The rest of the time I’m here. I failed them once. I’m not going to fail my family again. Even if I gotta sleep in the van until the end, I’ll do what I gotta do to make sure my family’s ok.”
Today, Dan’s daughter Elizabeth, also a disabled veteran, operates the cart next to his. They work with Dan’s son-in-law and other disabled veterans. Dan employs them, paying them appropriately, while providing a safe environment to support their recovery from the trauma of war.
The first question I asked Dan when I met him was, “what makes your hot dogs so much better than everyone else’s?” He told me:
“When we came here we went out and bought every brand of hot dog that they sell locally. And we gave them to people and we picked out the best one. And everyone came to the decision that this was the best one. So, if you start with the best hot dog you’re going to end up with the best hot dog. And we don’t put nothin’ in water. You eat a hot dog in water you’re eatin’ garbage. That’s it. That’s the genius. You buy the best you sell the best”
And his are the best. He told me what the brand is. But instead of reading it here, you’ll have to ask him yourself. You know where to find him.