Bethlehem City Council considers putting the (hot) dogs to sleep

Update: Bethlehem City Council has ruled in favor of a compromise measure regarding street vendors and Easy Weenies. Easy Weenies will be allowed to operate  between the hours of 6am – 4am Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Sunday though Wednesday Easy weenies will be open from 6am – 6pm.

Easy Weenies business license is up for renewal and that will be acted upon at a meeting scheduled for March 20. By all accounts there doesn’t look to be an issue with renewal and it is expected the license will be granted.

There’s trouble sizzling in Bethlehem these days as city council prepares to decide the fate of a popular street vendor. At issue is whether or not the outdoor Easy Weenies hot dog cart should be allowed to continue their late night/early am operations.

Easy Weenies has been catering to the hungry masses on Bethlehem’s Southside for about two years, offering extended late night hours on weekends. Often Easy Weenies remains open as late as 4am due to the demand from customers exiting the area pubs, Lehigh University students and folks heading home from or heading to work. Never one to turn away a hungry patron, owner/chef Michael Hernandez remains open until everyone has been served.

The issue is the fact that the Easy Weenies business license states they can only remain open until 2:30am on weekends. Easy Weenies has been filling late night/early morning bellies for some time without issue until a neighboring business lodged a complaint. The local business finding fault is a nearby pub that bills itself as a place “where fun people meet and party.” But apparently fun people quickly become a lot less fun and the party is over when it involves hot dog vendors.

While I know that rules are rules and I suppose on paper Easy weenies should pack up their cart and move along by 2:30am, I am not sure why the bar has an issue with Easy Weenies operating after they (the bar) have closed their doors for the night. Easy Weenies complements their existing establishment by offering a dining destination once people exit their place of business.

Although I cannot speak for them, I suspect they have a deeper issue with Easy Weenies and may feel that the street vendor is siphoning food sales from their operation throughout the evening. If that is the case then the pub should look into creative forms of competition or a menu change rather than an attempt to shut down a fellow small business person.

Easy Weenies has found a niche market in an area dotted with late night bars and anchored by a major university. I can only imagine the ruckus on the Southside if Easy Weenies were forced to promptly stop serving the large crowds that begin to form shortly before bar closing time and swell by 2:30-3am. Let’s face it, when people go out to drink they become very hungry as the evening draws to a close, and one only needs to look at any diner or WaWa to see that the food and snack business spikes between the hours of around 2am – 4am on weekends.

Easy Weenies provides a benefit to the community at large by offering an option for nourishment to hungry locals returning home after a night of over-indulgence. Being able to grab some late night munchies while walking back to dorms and nearby residences means less folks deciding to get in their cars driving around in search of quick, tasty food. That alone should be a major reason for city council to consider extending Easy Weenies operating hours.

More than a hot dog vendor, Michael Hernandez is an unofficial ambassador on the SouthSide. Each day just before 11am he arrives at his designated spot in front of an abandoned church at 15 W. Fourth Street and begins to set up his mobile cart up for business. The wide expanse of sidewalk and the concrete church steps provide a welcoming natural environment for outdoor dining.

In the past mobile food carts were referred to as push carts but nowadays these sophisticated carts featuring full grills are hauled to their respective locations via trailer hitch and motor vehicles. Michael delivers his cart using his battered but faithful Ford pickup truck.

It takes only a few moments to get everything in place and set up; grill heated, umbrella extended, napkins and condiments ready on the counter and coolers filled with ice and refreshing A-Treat soft drinks.

As the grill is heating up, passersby stop to say hello to Michael and place their orders. It seems like Michael knows everyone, greeting them by name as they walk by or gather around his cart. Functioning as a modern day town square, the locals gather to catch up on the goings on in town and nearby business owners venture over to grab a quick lunch and exchange pleasantries. Michael is never too busy to have a conversation with anyone or to entertain the neighborhood youngsters who appear fascinated by him and his cart. He has even enlisted some of the local children in the past to dress up in “Weenie” costumes and act as enthusiastic mascots, which they in turn find to be a thrilling way to spend a lazy summer day.

I first encountered Easy Weenies last year following a salon appointment at the incredible Eskandalo. I was pondering my afternoon lunch options when I spied Easy Weenies setting up shop across the way. A NY native and lover of street cuisine, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out his offerings. I ordered a couple dogs and feeling daring decided to ask Michael’s suggestion for a topping other than my usual plain with ketchup. He recommended barbeque sauce with cheese whiz, and that has since become my go-to topping.

I didn’t return to Easy Weenies for another 6 weeks, but Michael immediately remembered my order without my saying a word. That’s impressive especially when you consider the amount of customers he serves on a daily basis. I was already sold after the first bite but now I was a fan as well.

Michael and his Easy Weenies hot dog cart provide outstanding street fare in addition to great conversation and a friendly smile which I’ve yet to see fade. He treats all comers with respect and is genuinely interested in what they have to say whether it is local scuttlebutt, sports talk or just shooting the breeze. All are welcome from the homeless and marginalized to the young children or the executive pulling up to the curb in an expensive sedan, he considers everyone equal and worthy of his kindness and time.

Whenever I stop at Easy Weenies, I gain more than an enjoyable and inexpensive lunch or a happy stomach; I witness the purest form of neighborhood and community and while I know I can’t put ketchup or cheese on that, I really wish I could take it to go.

Easy Weenies deserves to be open late and I hope you will sign an online petition that is available here. As of publication the petition is up to 176 signatures with the goal being to get 2000 names. Please take a moment and sign it, he also is circulating a petition from his location in Bethlehem.

The Morning Call has covered the Easy Weenies story and you can read about it here, here and here.

I also want to add that Easy Weenies is not just for carnivores, they also serve delicious veggie dogs and veggie burgers.

Bethlehem City Council is scheduled to address this issue on Tuesday, March 6, 2012

All photographs courtesy Deb Boylan, menu courtesy Easy Weenies

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