Charlie Santagelo is something of a legend Downtown and on Washington Avenue: he's been hawking "Downtown Dogs" from a cart at Kiener Plaza for four and a half years, and on July 8, 1999, opened The Bodega on Washington Ave., reminiscent of neighborhood markets in New York. He took a few minutes from slinging dogs recently to chat.
Q: How's business?
A: Down here [Kiener Plaza], on a beautiful day like today, it's great. We're just in the middle of all the festivals, too, so we did PrideFest last weekend and the Fourth of July stuff is just around the corner. The Bodega is basically breaking even; it's frustrating, because we know we're filling a need for people who live downtown. I go through six cases of milk a week there, and eggs, bread. People are buying their necessities there, but the pace of development is just so slow.
Q: Who's the most famous person you've ever sold a hog dog to?
A: That's a really interesting question… I mean, I've had all the baseball players, the hockey players. The Mayors have bought hot dogs from me, and you know I've probably seen every politician in town at some point. Really, though, there aren't a lot of celebrities that we get here in St. Louis.
Q: What do you think it means for the city that you're down here every nice day selling hot dogs?
A: I tell you this: I give more change and directions than anyone in the city. When I'm not here, they should just set up an automatic information kiosk to fill my function! I get a lot of tourists, a lot of families, at the hot dog cart. Basically, the fact that I'm here all the time gives people a sense of security, because when I'm here, you don't see the bums and the panhandlers. The cops stop by a lot, and it just gives it a nice feel.
Q: Any strange experiences while you've been down here?
A: Well, I got my car stolen once. Yeah, I was pushing the cart up here to my spot, and I had left the keys in the ignition while I got the stuff set up, and I turned around and saw my car driving away down the street. It was the weirdest thing... there was a cop here and he asked me how it was going, and I said, "Well, that's my car driving away." They took off over the bridge, and my car went to Illinois. Got it back the next day. That's been one of the more memorable moments...
Q: What do you see in your near future?
A: With this city, who knows, you know? I've always been a little bit ahead of my time. You know wrap foods? I was wrapping foods long before anyone else, 18 years ago. No one knew what to think about it; now you see wraps everywhere. I owned the first karaoke bar anywhere that anybody knew about, called "Sing-a-long," in New York City. It did okay, but eventually I had to shut it down. Then karaoke hit big. So, we'll see.
(Editor's note: in a previous conversation, Charlie described to me the worst-case scenario he sometimes pictures of his retirement: "I'll be living in Florida, working the beaches, walking up and down with my hot dog cart and trying to sell hot dogs. They have these beautiful women, you know, who walk around down there in bikinis selling hot dogs, and I'll be dragging along next to them, wearing a little thong maybe, saying, 'Hot dogs!' in this old man, whiny voice, and wondering why I can't compete.")