Hot Dog Heroics
A talk with Mark Gatti
June 13 marks the 30th anniversary of Mark’s Hot Dogs. Mark Gatti is still in the same spot — Tommy’s Park, in Portland’s Old Port — slinging franks out of the same red wooden cart he and his father built. In 1983, one of Gatti’s dogs set you back 60 cents. Today, it’s $2.50, and credit cards are accepted. In addition to the traditional brown and red hot dogs with ketchup, mustard, onions, chili or kraut, you can pick up an Italian sausage for $5. The Old Porker, a recent special, has bacon, sour cream and sautéed onions ($3). And the bomb dogs ($3.50) are so loaded with toppings and condiments that Gatti gives you a paper plate to catch the mess.
Gatti, 54, is on the job from late morning to late afternoon six days a week, year round. If the weather sucks, he’s usually there anyway. I caught up with him on a drizzly day in May.
— Chris Busby
So, after 30 years, have you figured out what’s in a hot dog yet?
Ah, yes! I have. I use high-quality, natural-casing hot dogs, so it’s primarily the beef. And the skin is the natural casing, so, you know, there’s not much mystery meat in my hot dogs. [Laughs.]
How have you noticed the city change around you over the past 30 years?
There’s been a lot of change physically. The park opposite of us [Post Office Park] used to be a parking lot my first 12 years in business. This park itself they reconfigured in, I think, 2002. These days there’s a lot of “for lease” still, because the economy still hasn’t turned around commercially down in this area.
The people? The changes now from my first decade, in the ’80s — other than the early ’80s, which was kind of a down cycle — the middle ’80s, the late ’80s were fairly good economic times. So if there were any panhandlers or guys that were down and out, they tended to be guys in their 40s and 50s that had chronic substance-abuse problems. There weren’t that many. Now you see people of all ages out here that are in tough shape. This is a no-brainer. The economy, at least up in Maine, is still sketchy. You just see a lot more people that are really down and out.
Other than that, the people are always pretty nice down here through the years.
The Old Port was still a pretty rough place when you started, right?
It was on the change. My dad used to be a social worker. He’s retired now, but he worked for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In the late ’60s, one of the offices he used to come down to was right across the street, and he said at that time it was a real rough area. A lot of biker bars. Every time he’d walk down for a meeting, someone would offer to sell him some drugs and stuff. That was real edgy then, but by the time I started it was not. It was gentrified by then.
Do you still have customers from your very first days here?
A few. They’re real treasures; they’re a real treasure to me. And I always thank ’em — a lot.
What do you think of these new places in the Old Port — The Blue Rooster, The Thirsty Pig — doing fancier, foodie things with hot dogs?
I’m all for it. I think it’s great. It just keeps, for those that like that type of food, it keeps it out there in people’s minds. I think it’s good for all of us. Portland’s a foodie town. That’s, like, probably our biggest industry now. That and, I guess, insurance. [Laughs.] That’s what we have left. The fishing industries and all the other traditional industries aren’t what they used to be. It’s great for us to be a foodie town … I’m in favor of all the new things. You know, even I’ve added a few different toppings on my regular hot dogs.
How many hot dogs do you eat a week?
It’s not a whole lot now, at my age. I like ’em a lot; I always have. In the summer, I probably eat three to five hot dogs a week, and it’s mainly on weekends. I love to eat ’em on the weekends for cookouts and stuff. Other than that, probably just a couple dogs a week, because I’m around them so much. That way I still like them. I used to eat ’em everyday when I was younger, but in order to keep around them, I said, “No, no…” It’s like the guy at the pizza shop — he’s not eating pizza that often.
How much longer do you think you’ll stick with this? You got a retirement plan?
I don’t really have an exit plan at this point. Every decade I say, “Another 10 years.” [Laughs.] I’ll be here for a while still.