Vendor finds his niche

Vendor finds his niche

November 2nd, 2010 by Harrison Keely in News

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Larry Chillinsky hawks weiners like no one else.

Frankly, that's because no one else consistently has worked as a downtown street vendor here.

Staff Photo by Harrison Keely/Chattanooga Times Free Press Amanda Smith orders a hotdog from Larry Chillinsky, who operates a hot dog stand in front of the Bradley County Courthouse.

Parks, city streets and sports arenas are the usual locations, but Chillinsky isn't looking for "usual."

"Anywhere else, this is run of the mill," he said. "It's not common here."

Twelve years ago, he moved to Cleveland with his family from California at a time when job opportunities seemed plentiful in Tennessee and the cost of living was easier to swallow. But working at factories never satisfied, and he dreamed of going into business for himself.

In 2007, Chillinsky began vending hot dogs in Chattanooga. But a mix of strict rules, tight hours and bidding on one of seven $300-a-month locations didn't seem worth the effort and expense, he said.

"I didn't want to be governed that much," he said. "That's not working for yourself. That was nonsense-y."

After a year, Chillinsky left Chattanooga and set up shop in Cleveland, selling hot dogs on the town square year-round, five days a week, for three hours every afternoon.

"People were excited about it," he said. "They thought it looked like a 'big city' thing."

Carolyn Lay, from the Bradley County Business Tax Department, remembers when Chillinsky applied for his first business license. The city had to create new vendor regulations for the courthouse plaza because no one ever had applied before, she said.

Chillinsky has been a good ambassador for the vendor business, she said.

"I've not heard one negative thing about Larry," she said. "He seems to get along with everyone; he's just a very friendly man."

Government employees at the courthouse are some of his best customers, she said.

Cleveland resident Juanita Cooper said she goes downtown at least twice a month to see Chillinsky.

"He makes good hot dogs," she said. "And I enjoy talking with him. He's very pleasant."

While the first year of vending in Cleveland was rewarding and busy, regular days now yield only about 15 or 20 customers, Chillinsky said.

"Over time, things have slowed down," he said. "I don't know why. Maybe it's the economy. People are eating out less."

The extra money Chillinsky makes from working at area carnivals and festivals, combined with his wife's steady income from a local restaurant, helps him support his two daughters.

In his spare time, Chillinsky builds concession trailers with air conditioning, hot water and refrigerators, trailers he can take with him to larger events on the road.

"I'm hoping to retire doing it," he said. "I want to travel around the United States during the summer, hitting the bigger cities."

For the time being, he's "weather-resistant." On winter days he'll sell hot chocolate and, when the heat of summer peaks, he sells frozen drinks.

Some days, when downtown employees are busy, they'll call him and he'll bring the food to them.

At the center of town, Chillinsky knows all the business owners, or at least they seem to know him, he said. But he also knows the homeless. Some stop just to say "hi," while others ask for free food or to borrow money.

Chillinsky said he made the mistake of giving away a meal when he first entered the vending business. It wasn't long before word got out.

"In the first month I gave away a couple hundred dollars worth of food, so I had to cut it off," he said. "I don't want to be a soup kitchen. I don't have the means to do that, even though I wish I did."

Contact Harrison Keely at hkeely@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6504.