New York Scenes: The Vegan Hot Dog Vendor

Every so often, Marina Benedetto, 31, packs her Jeep with a grill, two tables and big bags of chopped vegetables, herbs and fresh bread. She then drives to a bar, an art openings or a food fairs, sets up her table, grill, and bowls of toppings, and starts serving hot dogs. Serving food from pop-up locations is not a new trend in New York City, but Benedetto, is aiming for a niche: her hot dogs are meatless. And soy free. And gluten free. And, she likes to say, delicious.

It took her three months to come up with a vegan recipe. There are a number of other places in New York to get a vegetarian hot dog, but Benedetto, a vegan, says that she has worked particularly hard to get hers just right. “The texture had to be right and the flavor had to be right,” she said. “I wasn’t necessarily aiming for it to taste just like meat, but have a meat flavor and a similar taste, without causing heaviness in the stomach that you get after eating a meat hot dog or a soy hot dog. I use real vegetables, herbs and spices.” She also offers eight different kinds of toppings. “They are like designer dogs,” she said, unlike the veggie hot dogs available in stores which are “factory processed, full of preservatives, and sitting on the shelves for a long time.” She added, “I use mostly organic ingredients, healthy ethical products. I am trying to create food that is healthy to eat. I am not into food that tastes like plastic.”

Benedetto, who has named her business Yeah Dawg, usually pops up at a location for six hours at a time. But it takes her two and a half to three days to prepare for it. “I get about 60 to 100 people in a six hour period,” she said. “At a monthly market, I get about 150 to 200 people.” It takes her a week to prepare for big events, such as the monthly market or the New York Vegetarian Food Festival that was held on March 1 and 2.

Benedetto has had no formal training in the culinary arts, and more practical experience than schooling. She says she has been working in restaurants or kitchens since the age of 14, including a counseling center for homeless youth, where she was the chef and cooked for people with special needs. “That’s where I got my herbal and nutritional training,” she says.

The decision to start her own business was a tough one. “Being a woman in the business is hard,” she says. “My main obstacle is learning all the law and licenses required in food sales, and understanding the bureaucratic paperwork and red tape around pop-up carts.” She has received a lot of support from other pop-up cart owners, and she is hopeful of getting her own food truck. “The food truck world is very competitive right now,” she said. “Pop-up carts are a great way to test the waters for the business. Veganism is becoming stronger, even in the mainstream. People are trying to take control of their food again. I want to make sure I have the following. Hopefully by summer I will have my own truck. Or my own space.”

If the long line of customers at her stall at the festival is any indication, her dream could become a reality. They lined up non-stop for the seven hours that the festival was open on its first day, March 1. One customer, Hari Saraiya, 37, said that he had been a vegetarian for the past 25 years and this hot dog was his first step to turning full-time vegan (usually meaning no animal products at all, including dairy). His wife, Jaya , who turned vegan many years ago, said, she had eaten vegan dogs before,  “but this is really great. And it is not processed, so it is healthy too.”

Deedum Olstrom from Long Island has been a vegetarian for the past 15 years. She said that she tasted a Benedetto hot dog last summer at the Long Island City Flea Market, and found that it “looks like meat, tastes like meat,” but is “cruelty free” and “healthy for your body.” The bonus? “I love them,” she said.