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Secrets of a Successful Street Vendor

This feature originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of The Grand Salami.

Hours before the crack of batting practice bats, Safeco Field’s ancillary businesses quietly prime for the harried hours leading up to the first pitch of the day.

Service workers clad in Mariners gear jingle keys and talk on cell phones as they walk to jobs at nearby restaurants. Parking lot jockeys cordon off the ideal spot to work from while flagging down the day’s fares. Trucks park along the streets surrounding Safeco Field delivering to res­taurants and street vendors supplies such as hot dog buns, plastic cups, super-sized jars of pepperoncini, and boxes of Cracker Jack. Grills are lit. Bags of popcorn and peanuts are stacked carefully.

Before long, however, the calm pre-game routine devolves into an excited juggernaut of roaming vendors, scalpers, baseball fans, and bicycle taxis.

Amid the carnival-like atmosphere is Tony Lorenzo Wright, veteran sausage slinger for Seattle Sausage. At his stand along Occidental Avenue South, just north of Safeco Field, smoke bellowed out from his white vinyl tent as he tried to convince a reporter that his veggie Italian sausage is traditional baseball fare.

“They come from the same family as hot dogs,” he said, shrugging. “There’s hot dogs. There’s sausages…hot dogs and sausages…It’s the same.”

Wright lives in Cambridge, England. He retired five years ago after working 30 years as an internal auditor for the U.S. Department of Defense, a job that brought him to England in the late 1990s. Married with five grown kids, he now spends his summers stateside, traveling between his childhood home in Hartford, Connecticut, and Seattle, where he volunteers his time on most weekends to help his brother Randy Stevenson, owner of Mojo Market, a convenience store directly behind the sausage stand.

Like other vendors, Wright lures potential customers to his sau­sage stand with inventive calls suitable for environments where people are accustomed to getting yelled at. For example, he found a way to get “grill” to rhyme with “meal.” This is possible by elongating the “i” sound in “grill” and then swapping it with an “ee” sound. It has become a popular cackle that is parroted by other vendors walking by.

“Hot off the greeeeelll; Come and get a meeeeal.”

Sometimes he tries: “Half the price, twice as nice,” which is intended to tug on the purse strings of those worried about inflated stadium food costs. The “half price” claim is not true (Mari­ner sau­sages are roughly the same price) but Seattle Sausage does have a wider variety of sausages available than in the ballpark, including the aforementioned classic: the veggie sausage. The stand also offers kielbasa, Polish sausage, chicken sausage, and its signature “Dog in Cloud” sausage, which tops a sausage with a schmear of whipped cream cheese.

Tapping into his experiences from life in England, Wright would like his bro­ther to renovate the storefront to include a walk-up window for fish ’n’ chips.

“I’m very interested in business development,” said Wright, who is working on a restaurant plan with some partners in Germany. “When you see a niche in the market, you need to jump.”

It was this philosophy that led his brother to open his convenience store six years ago. At that time, a nearby gas station that was stocked with game day essentials such as cigarettes, sunscreen, and batteries had closed, making way for construction of the Silver Cloud Inn on the corner of S. Royal Brougham Way and 1st Avenue South.

Such acute business planning also helps harness potential customers who are making what Wright thinks is a futile effort to avoid buying a pre-game sausage.

“I see people cross the street to avoid the vendors on this side, but they don’t know that they are walking right into another of our stands,” Wright said, pointing to a nearby Seattle Sausage stand directly across from the stadium—and directly in the path of the reticent customers on the other side of the street.

Wright knows that those customers are walking into a sausage gauntlet up ahead but he still doesn’t take the chance of giving up on a sale. As the customers shuffle by, smiling politely and mouthing “No, thank you,” Wright gently hectors them.

“Come to the light,” he yells, referring to the fact that they have crossed from the sunny side of the street on a gorgeous day into the chilly, shady side in an apparent attempt to avoid the vendors. Then another catchy phrase: “It’s lunch­time, it’s crunchtime, Let’s do it!”

Some potential customers waddle to a stop. They appear to discuss sausages with their companions, pulling out wallets and counting cash. They try to read the menu from across the street. They step closer. Wright pounces.

“Come take a look,” he says, opening the bin of sausages and placing a couple to sizzle on the hot grill. “If you get close, sometimes they wink at you. Look at ’em….look at ’em.”
The customers hover over the sausages.

“You smell that smell…I know you do…”

Wright says that about 50 percent will buy a sausage after taking a closer look but his marketing efforts can do only so much. Vendors need foot traffic in order to sell their products and when a team is doing poorly and attendance is down, vendors take a financial hit.

The Mariners sold more than 28,000 tickets to their Sunday afternoon Mother’s Day game this year. This translated into about 100 pre-game dogs sold for Seattle Sausage. Wright said that on a good day, that number would double.

Sounders fans are good for business, Wright says, but the drawback is that there are only 18 home soccer matches as opposed to the 81 games that the Mariners offer. It is a similar situation with the Seahawks. The fans are a ravenous sausage-buying crowd but, including pre-season games, vendors have only ten chances to tap into that market.

“When the Seahawks are here, you can’t see the ground there are so many people,” said Aurelia Parrish, who works the sausage stand with Wright on weekends.

There is an unofficial fraternity among the vendors, whether they are selling sausages, popcorn, or tickets. They all know who is new to the area, who should be there, who shouldn’t be, who is doing well, and who to stay clear of.

And, while they support each other, knowing that success is, in a way, based on the success of the whole atmosphere, there is also friendly competition.

“No line over here!” Wright yells in the direction of the nearby Al’s Gourmet Sau­sage stand, which has a line of customers stretching into the middle of Occidental.

Wright focuses on good customer service, which usually calls for getting customers out of line quickly. But, there are times, he said, when having a line is the sound business strategy. When he sees fit, he will chat with his customers in an effort to slow things down and create a small line.

“Being in line builds excitement,” Wright said. “It’s all psychology. Some people just like a place with a line, as if they are thinking ‘there’s a line, they’ve got to be good.’”

The challenge to working as a street vendor is dealing with constant rejection. There are people who simply refuse to buy from outside vendors, those that might buy, and those who are already enjoying a sausage.

“Thanks for supporting the vendors on the street,” he yells to a man who is eating a sausage purchased from a competitor. “Give us a chance next time.”

A roar of excitement comes from the stadium. Fans along Occidental move with purpose toward the stadium, no longer interested in the ambiance on the street. Wright lowers the heat on his grill, sits down for the first time in more than four hours and places a call on his cell phone.

“Happy Mother’s Day, mom,” he says. “I’ll be there tonight.”

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