Dan Rossi, in the van where he sleeps each night. Photo: Alexei Hay
Since he showed up with a cart outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly 16 years ago, Dan Rossi has been fighting with local officials over his right to sell hot dogs along what is arguably the most lucrative stretch of sidewalk in Manhattan. At the time, in 2007, a vending company was paying the city more than half a million dollars per year for the exclusive right to conduct business outside the museum. Citing a policy that dated back to the Civil War, Rossi argued that, as a disabled veteran, he was exempt from those fees and any necessary permits, and he refused to leave. (Because he wasn’t paying to be there, he kept prices low and undercut the competing stands.) It worked, and by 2009, the patch of land had become so overrun with copycat vendors that the police were forced to clear out the crowds. Rossi spent a night in jail, but he returned to his post and again refused to leave. At some point during the middle of the Obama administration, Rossi began sleeping there, setting up a folding chair behind the griddle. Increased competition and renovations that limited the space where vendors were allowed to park meant he was in danger of losing his spot. He eventually started to spend nights in a nearby van (an upgrade of sorts), but even that, he says, hasn’t been enough — and the city is again trying to squeeze out the man the Daily News once called the “Hot Dog King” of New York. Of course he is not going to simply roll away. “This is like the Alamo,” Rossi declares. “I’m the only one protecting the vets. And I’m probably the only one protecting the legitimate vendors.”
This most recent chapter of Rossi’s quixotic fracas began the night of January 26. An inspector from the Health Department, ostensibly following up on a complaint about four abandoned carts, stripped the letter-grade decals off Rossi’s cart. (The decals are similar to restaurant health grades and are required for all vendors.) Rossi, who points out that a sign on his cart explained he was asleep nearby, assumes he was targeted. He nevertheless waited for new decals to arrive and resumed selling his $4 hot dogs ($7 for jumbos) on February 6. Soon after, Rossi was told that one of his two carts — the license for which is owned by his daughter Elizabeth, who works with him — was too close to a crosswalk and needed to be moved elsewhere. “It more or less showed us what was happening as far as trying to get us away from here,” he contends.
On the morning I stop by, Mr. Met is posing for photos with fans on the museum’s steps. Rossi — who before COVID could average $1,500 in sales on a nice day — points to a small, beat-up cart that’s chained to a signpost nearby and says it’s nothing more than a placeholder. When that vendor shows up an hour later, he rolls in a bigger cart and begins to conduct business as usual. For Rossi, the double standard has become obvious: “When this guy gets here, he’s in the crosswalk. I said, ‘Why do I have to be ten feet from the crosswalk but nobody else?’”
This was the final straw. In February, Rossi’s other daughter, Danielle Machado, filed a petition on Change.org demanding that Mayor Eric Adams and Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan “enforce their health codes fairly across the board,” accusing the Health Department of failing “to enforce their own laws regarding illegal vending.” They’re asking that the city afford Rossi the same rights granted to other vendors who leave carts overnight so that he can get “a good night’s sleep in his bed, at home!” Although the petition has garnered more than 50,000 signatures, the Health Department appears unswayed by Machado’s argument. When I inquire about the situation, a department spokesperson writes back, “There is competition for prized vending spots and the City does not ‘reserve’ vending spots.”
Rossi has been through this before. In 1994, the New York Times reported that he owned 499 street-vending permits, accounting for 16 percent of the total market, which was capped at 3,100 citywide. At the time, he was known as the King of Pushcarts, leasing the carts and collecting more than a million dollars a year in rent. Critics argued that Rossi and others involved in a similar business were harming competition by creating a monopoly. The next year, a law backed by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made it illegal for anyone to own more than a single permit. Vendors’ groups pushed back, and Rossi sued the city, arguing that politicians were guilty of “selectively enforcing a permit scheme for the primary purpose of ruining Rossi and his business.” The legal challenges were dismissed, and the law stood.
Now, as then, Rossi believes the government is enforcing policies for someone else’s benefit. Whose, exactly? “Who knows?” he says. “The city has done everything to insulate themselves.” Even still, he believes he is the victim of a larger plan. “People are looking to get a piece of the action for themselves,” he posits. “It’s too obvious now. When they shut me down a few weeks ago, everything was exposed — everything.” And what happens if someone else moves into his spot? “They’re never going to leave.”
I wonder if it’s all really worth the trouble and ask why Rossi, who is now 73, doesn’t just move his cart somewhere else. Elizabeth, a veteran of the Iraq War, admits that the fight is, to some degree, about righting the perceived wrongs of the past. “He’s adamant about holding this spot because they screwed us so badly,” she says. “This is the only angle we have to get back even a portion of what we lost.”
For Rossi, a move just wouldn’t be worth it, and he’d have to contend with similar problems, though he’s willing to concede that, if the city doesn’t respond to the latest petition, there isn’t much else he can do. “Bottom line is this is probably the last battle. I’ve challenged the city to enforce the law. If they don’t, then I’m gone,” he says. “You can just last so long.”