Former Middle-Class Couple Runs Hot Dog Stand To Ward Off Homelessness
WASHINGTON -- Budd and Grae Lewis, 62 and 50 years old, wake up every morning and roll their hot dog truck out onto the streets of Portland, Oregon. Since they both lost their jobs to outsourcing in 2008 -- his as an animator and hers as a semi-conductor designer for Intel -- Budd says they can't afford one of the fancy enclosed food trucks that would allow them to work in inclement weather, so on many nights they go home with nothing but a pile of rain-drenched buns.
"We've spent days and days like little kids sitting glumly at a lemonade stand watching the cars go by, in the rain, huddled under our trailer's umbrella, trying to keep our hands warm over a little grill," Lewis wrote in an email to HuffPost. "Some days we'd sell two or three sandwiches. Some days it wasn't as good."
Lewis said the idea for his Japanese-fusion hot dog business, Domo Dogs, came from a successful Japanese hot dog stand the couple came across while Grae was pursuing a graduate degree in Canada.
"Being a dyed-in-wool-foodie and a part time cook, I couldn't leave well enough alone and kept monkeying with sauces and ingredients at our apartment in Vancouver," he said. "I finally hit on the best-tasting combination of flavors we'd ever tasted. That was our one treat per week, our weekly Friday night supper."
When the couple could no longer afford Grae's tuition on their dwindling savings, they moved back to the U.S., invested the last of their 401(k) money into a hot dog cart, plastered handmade signs onto it, paid for permits and pushed off into the streets. When Portland's rainy season finally ended and the clouds broke around July 4 of this year, Lewis said, Domo Dogs finally started to take off.
"Every time somebody stepped up to buy one, they'd just swoon at the taste," he said. "And the word spread. We're getting pretty well known. If we had a place to set up permanently, they'd be lining up around the block."
Lewis said he and his wife can't afford a permanent "food pod" in Portland, which typically runs between $500 and $800 a month, so they often set up at craft fairs and holiday bazaars at schools, grange halls and churches. This month, they managed to earn about $3,000 from hot dog sales, but he said they are putting most of that money toward repairs on the trailer. In the meantime, they're living for free in a friend's guest bedroom, but they might be homeless soon since his friend's house is in the process of foreclosure.
"Our story is not a complete success story, as we're still homeless, my health is still deteriorating and we're facing a ruthless winter when we'll be unable to go out in the elements to keep trying to work," Lewis said. "Maybe that's what this is all about though."
While the Lewises, both of whom have serious health conditions, are facing a long, uncertain winter in Portland, Budd says it's his love for his wife that inspires him to keep working.
"She's a super-trooper. She's the one who keeps me on my feet and going. She's never-say-die. And all I can offer her is a room in somebody else's home and a limpy little hot dog trailer that we have to keep fixing every time we have a couple of dollars to spare," he said. "That's why she's my hero."
As part of our Impact 2.0 project, HuffPost is rounding up stories of former middle class families who are struggling to stay afloat in the recession. If you have a story to tell, email LBassett@huffingtonpost.com.