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It's a dog seller eat dog seller world

Cape May vendors don't relish a new change in the law.

Joe Paruta mans his cart, Lucy's Dog House, at Beach and First Avenues in Cape May. A new ordinance in the resort increased the number of permits for military veterans who sell refreshments from pushcarts, causing friction among them. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)
Joe Paruta mans his cart, Lucy's Dog House, at Beach and First Avenues in Cape May. A new ordinance in the resort increased the number of permits for military veterans who sell refreshments from pushcarts, causing friction among them. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)Read more

CAPE MAY - A hot-dog vendor war is brewing here, with military veterans fighting over prime sales locations and a new city ordinance that many think fails to cut the mustard.

On one side are seven former servicemen who for years have sold hot dogs, sodas, and other snacks from pushcarts on the beachfront.

On the other are five newcomers, also vets, intent on selling steaming wieners from carts they paid about $6,000 each to own.

The friction is the result of Cape May's effort to provide more opportunities for veterans. Legislation passed this month increased the number of vending licenses available to them but maintained the seven approved beachfront locations that all 12 operators covet.

The veteran veterans say the change has hurt their ability to modestly supplement their pensions and other retirement income. The more carts there are, the less each man earns, they say.

The City Council's solution, to rotate access to the most desirable locations among everyone, cuts into the tenured operators' profits even more, the old-timers say.

"The pie is only so big. When you start slicing it up in smaller pieces, there's less for everybody," said Dick Cooley, 78, a former Army man who for 22 years has worn a platinum-blond Marilyn Monroe-style wig while tending his silver cart on Beach Avenue.

Cooley said that until recently he had made a decent living selling dogs, though he declined to disclose how much.

"These new people come in here and think they own the place," said the Korean War veteran, who lives in Wildwood Crest.

Joe Paruta, 58, is considered one of the interlopers. There would be plenty of business for everybody, he said, if Cape May increased the beachfront locations.

"Some of these people act like they came over on the Mayflower and nobody else should ever be allowed to do anything in this town," he said.

Paruta, an Army veteran who moved to West Cape May from North Jersey after retiring, bought a $200 ad in the local newspaper seeking support for his campaign to get the council to rethink its revised ordinance.

Another longtime vendor, Tony Genaro of Cape May, agreed that the council should revisit the issue.

"They tried to do right by everyone by opening up the licensing, but I don't think they thought out how that would affect everyone," said Genaro, 65, who served in the Army during the Vietnam era.

Preparing a cart and manning it for up to six hours is "a lot of work, and you really don't make a lot of money at it," he said. "Now you make even less money."

By state and federal law, honorably discharged veterans may peddle their wares in the public areas of any municipality, provided they obtain licensing and comply with ordinances and health regulations.

Every morning from early May to mid-October, the veterans arrive in Cape May, their cars, vans, and light-duty trucks towing stainless-steel carts.

Until this year, the first to arrive got his pick of the designated spots along Beach Avenue, which parallels the shore.

If they didn't want one of those prime locations - at Pittsburgh, Trenton, Philadelphia, Windsor, or First Avenue or Grant or Perry Street - they could set up about a half-block away on a side street.

Within that small area, amid parked cars, they set out sandwich-board signs advertising daily specials and decorate their carts with flags, kites, and other eye-catchers.

Some wear funny getups and offer running patter about the weather, politics, or the girls who walk by in bikinis.

Late last year, city officials decided to remove the limit on permits it sold veterans with snack carts.

To accommodate the larger pool of vendors, it created an "at-large" zone for pushcarts throughout the resort.

By the time the council voted on the ordinance May 19, however, the at-large zone was a fraction of what had been proposed. Large high-traffic sections close to the beach, the Washington Street pedestrian mall, and other tourist areas had been red-lined.

The ban is to prevent congestion on the Victorian-era resort's narrow side streets, the city manager has said.

The non-beachfront vendors are now mostly confined to the strand's less-populated north end.

"City Council has restricted so much of the town," Paruta contended. "I don't think that's a fair way to treat veterans who have served this country."

As for the rotation, which gives each pushcart operator a spot on Beach Avenue every other day, Paruta said, "The way it's set up now, I don't think anybody can make decent money."

Bruce MacLeod, the city manager, said last week that the changes were a good-faith effort to please as many people as possible.

The city didn't solicit new vendors, he said. State law says it can't limit the number who apply.

"At some point, if more people were to come here who want to vend, I think the true matter of simple economics would come into play," MacLeod said.

"If 24 people show up to sell hot dogs, it becomes obvious that no one is going to make any money at it."