Over the past four years, Chris & Joe Colaneri's lives have really gone to the dogs -- hot dogs, that is. They run Joe's Dog House, a hot dog cart at the intersection of Tech and Frew Streets on the Carnegie Mellon campus during weekdays, and on Walnut Street in Shadyside on Saturdays. What separates them from other purveyors of street wieners is that their menu caters to vegetarians, offering soy-based dogs, kielbasa, and an Italian-style soy sausage with sun-dried tomatoes and basil. Yum!
How'd the cart start?
C: Eighteen years ago I got breast cancer, which kinda changes your perspective. I decided to go for an easier lifestyle. For work I did a lot of things, like ran a cleaning business for eight years, but this is the best thing I've ever done in my life. Every year we go to Cape May, New Jersey, to vacation. Joe loves hot dogs and would go to this hot dog vender on the beach every morning -- his name is Dick and he's a cross-dresser! The guy was never ready, so Joe would sit and talk to him and got to know him.
How did you decide to sell vegetarian hotdogs?
J: A few years ago at the Ellsworth Avenue Festival, Dave from the bagel shop there gave us the idea. Everyone's trying to eat healthier and we want to offer alternatives to people.
C: We still sell the Sabrett All-Beef and Hebrew Nationals, and four types of chicken sausage. There are a lot of "flexitarians" out there. The only thing a vegetarian can't eat here is the chili.
What is it about hot dogs that people go so crazy about?
J: It's the all-American meal. We grill them and are told by people all the time that we have the best hotdogs they've ever eaten, better than Pink's out in L.A.!
C: The grill is another story. We bought it from a place that does all the carts for New York City. The woman we bought it from was really snobby. She said, "Trust me. Ninety-nine percent of the people who buy these carts don't get grills." I figured she must know what she's talking about. Well, we get here and it was just crazy. It's like, "This is Pittsburgh! We need a grill!" It's not like New York where people eat the hot dogs just out of the water. So, the next summer we took it back and got the grill put on.
What observations do you make about people by being out on the street?
J: You develop relationships with all these people. We had one student, John, great kid but he dressed in orange every single day: hair, shirt, pants, socks, fingernails. He came up one day last year and was really nervous. He says, "Joe, I don't know what to do. I think I'm going to grad school at Berkley." I said to him, "You're probably going to be the most conservative guy there!"
You sound almost parental.
C: Being next to Tepper [School of Business], these kids are coming from all over the world and aren't always familiar with our culture. I let them try everything first to see if they like it. When they first get here, they'll come to us everyday until they start making friends. Our goal is to make them feel more comfortable.
J: I'm more the uncle-guy who has fun with them. We try to support our customers. We'll go to the art gallery when our students have a show. We were at a basketball game once, and our customer Quinton got pulled out of the game. Chris starts yelling and I'm like, "Chris, you're not his mother!" The thing is, we treat everyone the same because you never know who's coming to the cart. They could be the dean of the college or the loneliest freshman in the world.
You're married (16 years) and running a business together, so you're basically spending all of your time together. Is that a good thing?
C: It is!
J: We just do our own little thing. I always tell students, "Try and find what you enjoy doing because there's a lot of people who get up every morning and hate going to work. Life's tough as it is!" We have a lot of fun.