In the world of hot-dog vending, Jilary and Ronald are unusual bosses: Unlike most other managers, they work alongside the four or so employees they have set up along the Embarcadero, slinging bacon-wrapped hot dogs with onions and peppers to tourists and passers-by for $10 a pop.
Most of the other managers, according to the vendors who work for them, never even show up except to collect their share of profits.
But even showing up each day, Jilary and Ronald eke out a living: The pair of owners typically make $1,000 to $1,500 a week after covering the cost of food and transportation. It’s a precarious investment, one at constant risk of being swept up by the city.
“Hot dogs aren’t a stable salary,” Ronald said, speaking in Spanish like other vendors. Sometimes, they only sell a couple, or none at all: This week they can’t sell, as the Embarcadero is partially blocked off for the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. Other times, they stand to make a lot more. During fleet week, Ronald said he earned $2,000 just in one day.
The job is hardscrabble: Multiple hot dog vendors in San Francisco said they pay upwards of 55 percent to the owners of their carts. With typical sales of $150 a day, that leaves them with around $70 for some six or seven hours’ work — an hourly wage of $10 at most.
“Selling on the streets isn’t for everyone,” said Ronald, who has worked by the Embarcadero for a little over a year.
In fact, it appears to be mostly for newly arrived immigrants, who rarely appear to stay at the job longer than six months.
Income from selling hot dogs is very unstable — and many vendors fear the city’s crackdown on street vending: The Department of Public Health has impounded 40 carts this year so far, according to a spokesperson from the department, including eight of Jilary and Ronalds’ carts in September.
“Can you imagine, from one day to the next, they appear and take away everything you have earned until now? Just imagine,” said Jilary.
San Francisco police officers and other city employees in yellow vests took their carts off the sidewalk, Jilary said. A fine of $300 per cart had to be paid to get them back, she said.
At Pier 33, Ronald and some three or four vendors set up their carts along the sidewalk. It is here that they wait for the ferries that disembark some 19 times a day on weekdays, six times on weekends. They arrive early, in time for the first departure at 8:40 a.m., and stay late, until the last boat arrives at 6:30 p.m.
Once each ferry moors, a wave of tourists quickly passes through a waft of grilled meat. Vendors turn their gas burners on; sausages sizzle. They shout “Hot dog!” in a bid to win over customers, competing with other hawkers and riders offering city tours on their bikes. Moments — and a handful of hot dogs — later, the sidewalk is quiet again.
Many vendors are undocumented and readily acknowledge their lack of papers. Jilary and Ronaldo, for instance, met in Nicaragua on their way into the United States, which they entered in August 2022.
Jilary started working by the entrance to the Alcatraz Ferry near Pier 33 shortly thereafter, and soon helped set up stalls for other vendors, who had also recently arrived in the country. She helps them get a start, she said. “Que viene de sufrir igual de nosotros.” “They have suffered as much as we have.”
Few stay long. Instead, it appears that selling hot dogs along the Embarcadero is a first job for many an immigrant — and, most often, one left as soon as a better paying job can be found: Of their some six employees, the longest-serving, Santos, has been on the job for around a year.
Santos said he had tried to look for work in restaurants, but as an undocumented person, he said hot-dog selling is his only option.
He purchased his own cart for $400, after Jilary and Ronaldo’s carts were impounded in September, and went back to work for them under their previous revenue sharing: 50 percent of earnings go to him, the rest goes to Jilary and Ronald to cover transportation.
That leaves him with about $400 a week to cover his costs, including his $500 monthly rent in a room shared with three people near the Civic Center, and to make a small dent in repaying the loan he took out to be smuggled into the country: $22,000, borrowed to fund his journey from Yucatán, with a steep $1,000 a month in interest. “Uno se preocupa,” he said. “One worries.”
For other hot dog vendors along the Embarcadero, their managers aren’t so generous. Some get a 45 percent cut — others even as low as 30 percent — and their earnings go to a manager they likely have never met.
“Si dios quiere, que se venda todo,” said Rosie, another vendor, looking at some 10 hot dogs she had already grilled for the day. “God willing, everything will sell.”
Rosie moved to the United States from Peru some three months ago. For a couple of weeks, she was grilling hot dogs by Pier 35 and Fisherman’s Wharf, while her boss took 55 percent of her income.
Two weeks later, over the phone, Rosie said she was no longer at the Embarcadero. Instead, she found a job cleaning office spaces at night, for $18 an hour, 24 hours a week. “Más tranquila me siento,” she said. “I feel calmer.”
But others aren’t so lucky. They are still waiting, selling hot dogs or, if the opportunity presents itself, additional items, like fruits or beverages.
“Here, you don’t ask for work, you don’t ask for money. But you create your work and your income,” said a vendor, Milca.