Like a prizefighter exiting his corner, hot dog vendor Freddie Rodriguez strutted away from his cart and approached his opponent. For several weeks, Freddie had feuded with fellow vendor Josh "Zeus" Pfohl, whose cart occupies the same street corner in front of the Durham County Courthouse. Now the tiny piece of concrete has become a battleground.
Zeus, 33, has hawked hot dogs since 2009 and toiled in the food business since his teenage years in Pittsburgh. The 57-year-old Freddie, who hails from Puerto Rico, is new to the industry.
Zeus sells his franks for a dollar and prides himself on professionalism and marketing. Freddie peddles his dogs for $1.50 and values customer service and friendliness.
Earlier this fall, Zeus saw Freddie digging through recycling bins for cans. Zeus took photographs and sent them to the county health department. Freddie took offense, later claiming that a health inspector said he could collect them after hours. Freddie puffed out his chest as he traversed the corner to confront his competitor. Seated on a cooler, Zeus stood up. A former bouncer and one-time workout partner of Pittsburgh Steelers star Jerome Bettis, Zeus weighs 295 pounds and claims he can bench press 305 pounds 10 times. This did not deter Freddie.
"I don't fuck around with snitches," he said.
The bald, bearded Zeus put his nose inches from his rival's face. The heavyweight wore spikey earrings made from Indonesian coconut wood, which he calls savage dragons.
"You need to go back to your cart, Freddie," he said.
"This is a public street," countered the challenger. "I'm gonna to deal with you man-to-man."
After the 30-second round of verbal jabs, the two men retreated to their carts, where their loyal partners awaited them. Freddie deals with the money, while his wife, Faye, who owns the cart, handles the food. Her perpetual smile exposes a gold tooth.
Zeus is assisted by Grace, an older woman who motors around in an electric wheelchair and says Zeus keeps her out of jail.
In the battle for the courthouse corner, it's a dogfight between the experienced industrialist and the plucky entrepreneur, and neither is afraid to get up in the other's grill.
"I just want to bury him," says Zeus.
Many turf wars hinge on who arrived first, but the facts are often complicated. For three years, Zeus sold franks by the steps of the old courthouse on Main Street. Grace, a former customer, became his business partner. He named the operation Four Corners Hot Dogs.
Freddie and Faye broke into the business last year, after Freddie left his city job on disability. The duo originally staked a place near the Department of Health on Main Street. They named their operation Not Just Dogs.
Late last year, as construction workers finished the new courthouse, Freddie and Faye moved their cart to the corner of South Roxboro and South Dillard streets—the very spot where Zeus' cart currently resides. The relocation was an investment; they assumed a wave of customers would follow soon after.
On Feb. 11, the new courthouse doors opened. Freddie parked his cart on the corner, just as he had for the past three months, while Zeus parked his cart on the pavilion by the front doors, greeting customers he had served just days before on Main Street. But later that day, courthouse workers told Zeus he could not sell hot dogs on the pavilion.
The following morning at 9, Freddie and Faye arrived with their cart. Zeus was already parked at the corner, so they rolled their cart farther east, down Dillard Street.
They soon realized foot traffic was lousy there. Over the next few weeks, they inched the cart closer to the corner.
Though Zeus' franks cost a dollar, toppings (as many as you want) are an extra .25 cents. Zeus offers fresh coffee brewed in a 1956 percolator. He buys his Sabrett's franks from a Raleigh distribution warehouse. He prides himself on his potato-bread buns. He has a 97.5 health inspection score. He was docked by an inspector who said his tomatoes were too warm; now he keeps them on ice. He says sheriff's deputies prefer his dogs.
Zeus, who earned his moniker after naming his son Perseus, launches into an attack on Freddie, calling him unsanitary. "He'll be blowing his nose and smoking cigarettes," he says. Regarding the recycling cans, he adds: "If you go to the hospital, you don't want doctors touching old syringes. Picking up trash causes cross-contamination." He then explains he just filed a complaint with the zoning board, alleging that Freddie's cart is illegally parked.
In front of his cart, Freddie nurses a lollipop, while Faye serves customers. Unlike Zeus' toppings, Freddie's are free (with the exception of nacho cheese). His cart features homemade lemonade. He purchases his Nathan's franks from Sam's Club. He has a 99 health inspection score. An inspector said his cart had too much duct tape. He says his dogs are the preferred choice of judges.
Initially, Freddie does not criticize Zeus. "It's like McDonald's and Burger King on the same block; there's room for everyone," he says. But slowly his tone changes. He criticizes Zeus's potato-bread buns for being moldy. "He also has a nasty attitude, so his customers come to us."
When Freddie learns Zeus has filed a zoning complaint against him, he bristles, twirling his lollipop. Glaring at Zeus, he storms up to the edge of the corner. "I was there before you!" he shouts. "Tomorrow morning I'm going to take that spot back!"
By now, a crowd is watching. Faye and Grace begin shouting, too. "You wanna play hardball, but if you go hard then go long," Faye yells.
Freddie takes 10 giant paces from the edge of the corner toward his cart, counting off each stride as if marking a battle line. After 10 paces, he reaches his cart and spins around. "50 feet!" he yells. Then he goes back to work.
A few days later, on Halloween, Freddie is dressed in a black-and-white court jester's costume with cap 'n' bells. Faye is smiling. Freddie says everything is fine. A zoning inspector visited earlier and told him he only had to move his cart 3 feet down the street.
"They can't hurt a good man," Freddie says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dog eat dog."