After a little over four years of Fuhgeddaboudit hot dogs served out of a small cart on Main Street, New York Johnny’s owner Johnny Saltarella is putting the business on hold — for now.
“I miss it, I love doing it, it’s my baby, it’s my heart and soul,” Saltarella said. “There’s nothing like being out there (talking) with people. They come over, and you know what they always want.”
Saltarella said moving to a new house without a convenient place to keep his carts, and a desire to spend time with his family has been part of the reason for hiatus from slinging dogs on Moscow streets. He also said involvement in multiple projects this past year left him feeling burnt out.
“When the school year began, I was cooking onions in the University of Idaho Commons for 20 hours a week and I was devoting 40 hours a week to the heating, ventilation and air conditioner business and going to school for it, and doing the carts on the weekends,” Saltarella said.
The New York Johnny’s hot dog cart made its debut in Moscow on the night of Mardi Gras in 2010. Saltarella said he was determined to make a good first impression in Moscow, because in small towns you really only get one chance to win people over.
Saltarella focused on getting the New York Johnny’s logo out into the community, so he brought his cart to as many different events as he could even if the profit he made only covered overhead. At marriages, tailgate parties, birthdays, art shows and various other events, New York Johnny’s was serving hot dogs.
“The first six months were rough,” Saltarella said. “But it’s like somebody turned a light switch on, next thing you know people are waiting in line for 45 minutes for a hot dog, it didn’t matter what the weather was like … it was awesome.”
Saltarella also had a signature advertising strategy by always taking pictures of the customers, who would purchase hot dogs from his stand and then putting the photos on Facebook.
“Some parents would say to me, ‘the photos on the Facebook page were the only way I know my kid is alive,’ because they wouldn’t call them enough,” Saltarella said.
Saltarella said he was approved to sell his products anywhere in the U.S. commercially and he planned on hitting market shelves with New York Johnny’s onions, olive oil, spicy relish and marinara. He said all his products are homemade — his father sent him onions from New York, he bought brats from a local butcher in Moscow and he made olive oil from a 200-year-old recipe his grandfather brought from Italy.
Originally, he said he didn’t plan on setting up a brick and mortar operation, but in the summer of 2012, he was approached by Sodexo and offered the ability to set up kitchens near the UI golf course and in the Student Union Building. Saltarella said he had a gut instinct that it was a bad idea, but he went with it anyway — much of the reasoning being the overwhelming support of the people close to him to pursue it.
Saltarella said business was going well at first, but the inconvenient locations of the SUB cafe and the golf course stand weren’t bringing in enough business to cover the costs of leasing the kitchens, increased production of food and a larger employee base.
“The carts were carrying the kitchens, and I was paying out-of-pocket for the larger overhead … the cafe was an open artery bleeding me dry,” Saltarella said.
The year did have highlights, however. In August 2012, New York Johnny’s hosted the Second Annual Pacific Northwest Hot Dog Eating Contest, with over 1,000 people attending, Saltarella’s family even flew over from New York to surprise him.
In December 2012, New York Johnny’s and Sodexo split, although UI still allowed him to cook in the Commons kitchens and Sodexo still worked with him for catering. After spending a few weeks in New York after the SUB cafe shutdown, he said he came back swinging at the hot dog stands during the weekends. He continued this until the end of January of this year, when he decided it was time to take a step back from the business.
Saltarella said he frequently receives messages from Moscow community members who miss seeing the cart on the weekends. Even though he is on hiatus from the hot dog game, UI contacted him a couple weeks ago to work together for catering events, and he is still working behind the scenes to prep for when the famed Fuhgeddaboudit dog hits the streets once again.
George Wood Jr. can be reached at email@example.com