Oscar Mayer, Monet, and Money

Outside N.Y.'s Met, $288,000 is the price of doing business=

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ANDY WARHOL never painted a hot dog, but he might have been inspired by the stand outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What makes the green and white minitrailer so notable is that this January the owner started paying the city $288,000 just to be able to sell museum-goers street dogs, pretzels, sodas, and ice cream.

As almost any New Yorker can tell you, that's a lot of buns. At $1.25 a piece, it would take 230,400 hot dogs or pretzels just to make the rent this year.

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So why would M&T Pretzel fork over so much money to the city? The answer is sidewalk capitalism.

"It's our flagship location," says George Marcos, M&T Pretzel vice president.

As Mr. Marcos discovered, it's a dog-eat-dog business out there. To keep his flagship, he got into a bidding war. It was a situation that city officials relished.

"My reaction was 'hot dog,' " says Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, who confirms that the bid was a record. "We did not know we could get that much sauce out of a hot dog," he adds.

The "sauce," in fact, contributed to the $29 million the department collected last year, up from $2.5 million in 1978. With the city in trouble over its budget, the additional funds helped to offset some of the cuts.

Even New Yorkers, who aren't fazed by much, are astounded that anyone would pay that much money for a hot-dog stand.

Buying a pretzel, Bryan Miller, a freelance photographer, asks, "Do they hope to make a profit?"

The hot-dog seller that day, Irmas Babayev, an immigrant from Tajikistan, only shrugs. The economics of the business, he says, is driven by the weather. A hot dog kind of day is sunny with lots of New Yorkers out for a stroll. Some high-traffic stands may sell $1,500 a day in food and drink.

On chilly days, the haul could be only a few hundred dollars in some locations. But on a recent rainy Tuesday, New Yorkers were thronging the museum. Outside, people were lined up to buy hot dogs. Unlike Mr. Babayev, the woman running the stand keeps her mouth zipped.

"No speak English, go away," she tells a reporter.

But the owner, Mr. Marcos, who keeps his financial details secret, admits this spot might be a winner.

"This is a great location because of the Metropolitan Museum," he says. "There is a steady flow, a nice traffic flow."

EVEN in the world of hot dogs, that's a slight understatement. According to the museum, 4.9 million visitors admired the art here last year. After walking through miles of corridors, art lovers walk down the steps to the museum and pass directly in front of the food.

Could it be the best place in the city to sell street food?

Marcos, like any good businessman, admits nothing. "It might be, it might not be." Marcos mentions that the stand is just one in his chain of 30 carts in the city. "We just want to stay ahead of the competition," he says.

This capitalistic pursuit has driven the family since 1974 when Themis Marcos, George's father, immigrated from Greece. By 1978, he had one hot-dog stand. His two sons, George and Thomas, joined him in 1982. By 1986, they had captured the Metropolitan spot. In case anyone is thinking of bidding for the spot in 1998 when the lease comes up, Marcos warns, "It is an extremely hard business."

With the start of spring, Marcos admits he is not thinking of robins in the park or flowering cherry trees. Instead, he imagines New Yorkers enjoying some sunshine while they eat one of his Brooklyn-made all-beef hot dogs.

"It's the start of the hot-dog season," he says.

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