Dogging it for 36 years: Portland food fixture Mark Gatti

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PORTLAND — Hot dog buns aren’t a typical 36th anniversary gift.

But they would be appropriate for Mark Gatti, proprietor of Mark’s Hot Dogs.

Gatti reopened his lunch cart late last month at the corner of Middle and Exchange streets, a spot at Tommy’s Park first recommended to him by a friend when he started his business on June 13, 1983.

“Each day brings something different,” Gatti said May 1. “I don’t know how much I will make or how many customers I will have.”

He is a forerunner, but not an original by his estimation, having set up shop about a decade after the city began licensing food carts again.

On his first day, he squirted mustard all over a well-dressed woman who had been waiting in line for lunch. A week later, a wind gust blew his umbrella into someone riding by on a moped.

“After that, I made sure I lashed down my umbrella,” Gatti said.

His menu has been constant, including the red hot dogs Maine is known for, topped with chili, cheese or sauerkraut. As business picks up in the spring, he adds Italian sausage and kielbasa.

Gatti tried serving lobster rolls; that lasted one season. Thai spring rolls did a little better – he sold them for about three years.

But it all comes back to the hot dogs, even as food trucks operated by chefs astound Gatti with their offerings.

“There has been a shift,” he said. “But I have carved out a niche.”

Drinks sit in coolers on a bench to the right of his cart, which is crafted from wood gleaned from chicken coops on a farm owned by his grandparents in Kennebec County. On a bench to the left sit friends Gatti has made along the way.

“He’s the best, a great guy. I like him, I like his hot dogs, he’s a nice guy,” one of them, Scott Tounge, said as he watched Gatti serve customers.

Tounge is hard to miss in his jacket and cap with 172 pins, including one telling people not to stare at his pins. Tounge said his devotion to Gatti led him to have Gatti’s cart logo tattooed on his back.

(It was a cool day and Tounge was wearing three layers of clothing, so he was taken at his word.)

Gatti no longer works year-round at the spot, and this year he set up shop a little later than usual because of bad weather. In the winter, he works full-time delivering materials to departments at Maine Medical Center and can pick up more hours when the weather is not conducive to hot dog sales.

Yet the cart remains his primary source of income and joy, even though he never expected to operate it for more than about five years.

Gatti said he was living in Colorado and California in 1982, having just earned a degree in sociology.

“I had gone straight through school, I was burnt out,” he said.

Out west he saw food carts, and the idea stuck with him when he returned to Maine.

“When I got back, the job market was pretty porous,” he said. He was not ready for graduate school or a career in social work, but did have about $5,000 in savings.

It went into the cart.

His season typically runs from late March to early December, serving from 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

While Gatti never became a sociologist, he has cooked up quite a field study with his cart.

“It’s great,” he said. “There are so many people, so many walks of life, so many personalities.”

 

As his 36th anniversary approaches, Mark Gatti is getting cards from customers happy to see him open again at the corner of Middle and Exchange streets in Portland.

Portland hot dog vendor Mark Gatti: “I have carved out a niche.”

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.