The Other Hot Dog King of New York: A Chat With Ed Beller, Inventor of Stainless-Steel Pushcarts
Ah, the sweet, sweet smell of hot dogs steaming from a bright, shiny curbside cart. What’s more New York than that? Not much. And seeing as nobody running around this city has time to sit down for a long, wholesome lunch break anymore, today's ever...
Ah, the sweet, sweet smell of hot dogs steaming from a bright, shiny curbside cart. What's more New York than that? Not much. And seeing as nobody running around this city has time to sit down for a long, wholesome lunch break anymore, today’s ever-widening range of food carts and trucks offer quick, tasty solutions to those midday hunger pangs.
But without the switch from old-fashioned wooden carts to modern stainless-steel pushcarts, it wouldn't be possible for vendors to sling the vast array of street foods that you can choose from today. It all went down in 1948, the hot idea of Ed Beller and Mark Monies, who co-founded Admar Bar and Kitchen Equipment Co. that same year.
Ed, it turns out, is my grandfather. I recently had the pleasure of talking with him about his unlikely and meteoric rise to the top of the hot dog, peanut, and knish pushcart game. He served up Admar’s origins (the company was first located on Catherine Street, later moving to Long Island City, and eventually transferring over to Worksman Trading in Ozone Park in the late ‘60's), pioneering street vendor tech and brushes with fame. And yes, even after all these years he can still enjoy a nice pushcart dog – just don’t forget the sauerkraut and onion sauce.
So, Grandpa, where did people go to get hot dogs before you made Admar pushcarts?
Hot dogs were sold from pushcarts illegally from several places – not too many, because push carts had been outlawed by Mayor LaGuardia in 1936. Those pushcarts that existed when we came into business were actually illegal. And they [vendors] had to pay off policemen to stay where they were.
By the time you made your stainless steel pushcarts, were pushcarts legalized on the streets yet?
No. They were not legalized until very much later. In fact, I don't remember when they were legalized but there came a time when the city became aware that people in street vending made a lot of cash and then they started to auction off certain places and people would pay the city a big amount of money to be allowed to stand. In front of the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, or Museum of Natural History – people paid huge amounts of money to get a permit to stand there.
1910 hot dog cart (Brown Brothers via New York Times)
Did you run into any legal problems making the pushcarts before they were legalized on the street?
No, we didn't have any problems with that. People came to us and bought pushcarts and those who bought them knew it was illegal to use them, but they bought them anyway. And I guess they knew how to avoid being bothered by the police, or they moved on. There were cases I heard of where the police came and picked them up on a truck and towed away the pushcart, and then returned them later on. But meanwhile the man had to pay money to get it back.
Were you bound to any health codes making these pushcarts even though they technically weren't legal to sell food on the streets?
No, we didn't have any codes to follow. Definitely not. Health codes came into play much later after the city decided to start selling spots.
How'd you even get the idea to start your business?
It's a long story. With that said, the location of our first business was purely accidental. It was a storefront on Catherine Street in a very old building. And that particular location had been, prior to our being there, owned by some real sheet metal men who could make restaurant equipment. But before they had possession of that, the place was used for the re-tinning of cans that were used for ice machines in New York. People brought their cans to this location and the people who owned that spot before sent them out for re-tinning. So this became kind of a location that street vendors used.
Two stores next to us, there was a sheet metal man who knew this business very well, a roofer, and people who were then in existence came to him to make certain equipment for their carts, particularly peanut warmers, but also equipment for frankfurter cooking. When we were there for some time, a man going to the roofer passed by our store, saw us working, and he stepped in and thought maybe we could do a better job than the roofer two stores down. He asked me to come with him in a taxi to a pushcart, and showed me what he wanted. For me, it was something new, it was related to something that I had learned to make in my father's shop, namely a pastrami warmer.
Pastrami warmers were used in all of the delicatessens, and what the man showed me looked somewhat like a pastrami warmer. So I said, ‘Yes, I can make it.’ I knew how much pastrami warmers were supposed to cost, so I gave him a price, he took me back to the shop in a taxi, gave me a deposit, and picked it up a few days later all satisfied, and very soon other people came from old pushcarts to have equipment made by us. The equipment were primarily units to cook frankfurters, to warm rolls, to keep sauerkraut and onions hot, and heating equipment was needed in general.
Before that guy came and asked you to make the particular part for him, what were you making in your shop on Catherine Street?
We bought the machinery of this particular place from the owners knowing that we would make restaurant equipment. I knew how to make restaurant equipment, namely sterilizers, sinks, steam tables, bar sinks, which I had learned in my father's shop on the Bowery. And when my partner and I considered going into that business, we figured out how many sterilizers we could make, sell, and make a living on it. And we did.
Pastrami warmers were used in all of the delicatessens, and what the man showed me looked somewhat like a pastrami warmer. So I said, 'Yes, I can make it.'
So we were making these items and by chance this man came by. As I mentioned earlier, he was going to Mr. Greenberg, the roofer, but happened to stop off in our shop first to see if we could make what he needed. And that was a very lucky circumstance. Another thing that helped us to do well was the fact that Catherine Street was located very close to Chinatown, and so the Chinese came by and wanted specialty things made, particularly stills, and we knew how to do that.
Hot dog cart in 1936, when Mayor Laguardia banned the contraptions (via NYPL)
What sort of equipment was used to make the pushcarts? And what’d they run on?
Most of the street vendors used charcoal as a heating medium, but some people already had burners that were manufactured in Buffalo, NY, using lead-free gasoline. We found the factory in Buffalo and started making equipment with the burners. However, we were kind of enterprising and we tried to get a more modern burner from Sweden. They manufactured a heater that worked on kerosene and we used that not very effectively.
So after a while, we found a manufacturer in America that used lead-free gasoline for their camp stoves and we adopted those camp stoves for the units that we manufactured for frankfurters. It became quite a popular item, and it was talked about among frankfurter pushcart men that we made something that's good. So by word of mouth it spread around among old-fashioned pushcart men that these are two guys who knew what they needed.
So this was when you shifted from making parts to whole pushcarts?
Yeah. We were pretty enterprising, so we thought we would make a pushcart ourselves. Mark, my former business partner and very good friend from Vienna, designed a cart that could work, but it turned out that it was much too heavy and we had to throw it away. But after a while we developed a body that could be pushed by a person. But we needed wheels, so we looked for modern wheel manufactures rather than the wooden ones that came from Arkansas. We found the Worksmen cycling company, who manufactured wheels for ice cream carts at that time, and we started to buy wheels from them for our carts and that was very good for a long time. However, old-fashioned frankfurter pushcart men liked the carts that used wooden wheels better so we imitated their wooden carts with a stainless steel body, and we put wooden wheels on them so they were relatively easy to push.
So by word of mouth it spread around among old-fashioned pushcart men that these are two guys who knew what they needed.
That became a real good item. Because the distances between the locations where people could work and where they could store the carts became bigger and longer, and people found newer spots where they thought they could work, we invented a system using a battery-operated motor to move the wheels of these wooden-wheeled pushcarts. Mark came up with the idea for the motored cart, and I want to make sure he gets credited for that.
Was it just you and Mark when you started, or did you have other workers?
For quite a while, Mark and I were the only two working at 16 Catherine Street. Very soon, though, we had enough work. We needed a helper and we hired a man who had previously worked for my uncle on the Bowery in the restaurant equipment business. The problem was that man only spoke Yiddish. Mark spoke some Yiddish. I was trained not to speak Yiddish at all, but I learned to recognize that Yiddish was a language to communicate with that man and that man did very good sheet metal work for the restaurant business. Very soon after this one, we hired another man. By the end of ten years, right before we had to move to Long Island City, we had about twelve people working there.
Why'd you move?
After being there for ten years, we were asked to move because the lady that owned the building died and the heirs wanted to turn it into money and sell it. We were paying $50 a month for rent there, but the new place we found in Long Island City cost $500 a month, which I hated to do, but it turned out to be a very good thing.
Wow. What year did you make your first stainless steel pushcart?
We started to work in the shop on Catherine Street in 1948 and soon after, about a month or two later, we made our very first pushcart which was, as I mentioned, too heavy to move. But soon we learned how to do it well and we made very good carts.
What are some of the differences between old-fashioned wooden and stainless steel carts?
The main difference is that the old-fashioned carts could take a much bigger load of soda, and storage of frankfurters and rolls, etc. And because it had large wheels, it was easy to push for that kind of load. That's the main difference between the two. In the old carts, the extra frankfurters that were waiting to be cooked at a later time were put in the icebox with the sodas to be kept cold, which wasn't very sanitary. The equipment to cook frankfurters was made in an old-fashioned way by machines being soldered. The corners of the pots, if not thoroughly cleaned, could easily accumulate dirt, and the other units of the carts did as well. After some time making this kind of frankfurter stove, we found equipment that was used in commercial steam tables, and we could use for cooking the frankfurters. They had coved corners and no dirt could be accumulated there. The only problem was we had to find a new way of attaching a lid to it, which we did.
We also changed the way mustard would be served; the old-fashioned way had a glass jar with a wooden stick and a disc holding the stick. We used a part that was manufactured by large manufacturers, which were used for dressing in hospitals. We took that pot, drilled a hole in the lid and put a stainless steel tube that was adjusted for using as a mustard jar and that became a much more hygienic way of serving mustard. We also used a piece of equipment made by these large manufacturers to keep sauerkraut and onions hot. Sauerkraut has a way of eating into metal, even stainless steel, so we used a pre-manufactured part, which was relatively inexpensive and if it developed holes it could be thrown out and a new one could be ordered.
Modern day hot dog cart (via)
Did you incorporate any specific aesthetics into your pushcarts?
We did not look for aesthetics. However, there came a time when some private person wanted to have a pushcart, and instead of stainless steel outside, she wanted plastic striped colors. We learned how to put these plastic stripes on the outside of the cart that made the cart prettier, certainly. After this lady wanted it for her personal use, we thought it would be an idea even for commercial purposes, and there were quite a number of men who bought new carts who liked the idea of having colorful sides.
So you had nothing to do with the umbrellas which are typically yellow and blue, yellow and red, or orange and blue?
No. The umbrellas were yellow/orange and blue for time and immemorial, because New York City's colors are orange and blue. Sabrett, the suppliers of most frankfurters of the time, bought yellow and blue umbrellas and they had their name put on it.
Did you have any other interesting customers besides the woman who wanted a colorful pushcart?
Yes, we did. Tom Ewell, who was at that time a famous movie actor came to our store. It turns out Tom Ewell was a partner in the movie The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe. He came because he wanted to have something for his son to do so he wouldn't get into trouble. They lived on the Eastern end of Long Island and he bought this trailer, rather than a pushcart, that could be put behind the car and he took it to his son, who supposedly tried to use it. We don't know what happened to him. We also had an agent for Elizabeth Taylor, who ordered a very fancy pushcart for her husband, Richard Burton.
Who were your most prominent competitors?
As long as our business was on Catherine Street, near the Bowery where all the rest of the restaurant equipment manufacturers were, we had no competitors. We were always afraid that we could get a competitor among the many sheet metal men who made restaurant equipment and we tried to keep our prices low so that it shouldn't occur to any of the other manufacturers to go into that business.
We had an agent for Elizabeth Taylor, who ordered a very fancy pushcart for her husband, Richard Burton.
Very soon, somehow or other, the Navy Exchange learned about us. Naval exchanges were all over the country, places where sailors would come off the ship and would go for leisure and have a frankfurter, and we supplied the frankfurter carts for these navy exchanges. Very soon, the Army Exchange learned about this and they needed frankfurter carts in large quantities. Our business changed dramatically for the needs of the Army exchanges.
Did you make anything else besides hot dog, peanut, and knish pushcarts?
On Catherine Street, a man came around and he thought it would be a good idea to have a food truck, but the food truck couldn't fit in our shop, so we worked on the street with this truck partially parked on the sidewalk because Catherine Street was a very narrow street. That was the first food truck we made. This particular man moved his truck to Woodhaven Boulevard near the cemetery. There were no good restaurants around, and he developed a very good business. In fact, in my opinion, this man had the best frankfurter in New York. And we started making more trucks only after we moved from Catherine Street to Long Island City.
Did any of the vendors hook you up with free hot dogs?
Whenever I traveled around in New York and I came to a hot dog stand and said hello, the people knew me and said, ‘Have a hot dog.’ And I liked it. I like hot dogs very much, especially made on pushcarts with sauerkraut and onion sauce.
You can learn more about Ed Beller as well as other tasty NYC lunches throughout the years at the New York Public Library’s Lunch Hour NYC Exhibition