Marcus Daily didn't grow up in Franklin County, but he's become as well known here as many natives. If you don't recognize his name, you may have heard of his business, although not by its official name, the Pizza Dog.
If you've heard of Daily, you probably know him better as "The Hot Dog Man."
Daily has his portable hot dog cart set up in select locations four days a week (two in Washington and two in Union), and he also can often be found at various special events.
Just before Halloween, Daily attracted attention when he set up a giant hot dog cart outside of K-D Machine and Tool in Union to sell his fare. The cart (which was built by K-D) wasn't just giant, it set a world record Oct. 28.
Guinness World Records recognized it as the largest hot dog cart at 9 feet, 3 inches tall by 23 feet, 2 inches long and 12 feet, 2.75 inches wide.
Daily had two witnesses and a surveyor on hand to authenticate his claim. Franklin County Auditor Tammy Vemmer and attorney Bob Garza were the witnesses, and Cochran Engineering was the surveyor who took measurements to verify the world record cart was an exact replica, just three times larger, than his pushcart.
The oversized cart, which is mobile, although very difficult to move, will find a permanent home come January 2014 in a lot at the Bedford Center shopping plaza in Washington (behind the Subway restaurant). Daily currently is having the cart modified to include a kitchen where he can cook his hot dogs and sell them out of a drive-up window.
Other modifications are being made to reinforce the cart so it can be used as a permanent structure, said Daily.
These things couldn't have been done initially or else the cart wouldn't have qualified for the world record, Daily noted. "It had to be an exact replica of my push cart."
When it opens, the restaurant will be known as Wonder Wiener Corporation. Daily plans to work up to having the location open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and ultimately to have franchise locations in cities like Rolla, Columbia and St. Louis.
Daily admits this is a career he never envisioned having. It"s a way to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a chef and his need to have the kind of flexible work schedule that allowed him to spend time with family.
It also is a career that almost didn't happen - twice.
Plumber Turns Chef
Daily, whose mom worked as a flight attendant, had lived in Arkansas, California and Kansas before settling down in Franklin County at age 19 once his mom was assigned to St. Louis.
Daily had a career working as a plumber for years, although it was always a job he held more out of necessity than anything else. It was a decent way to pay the bills and support his family, he said.
But when he found himself getting a divorce and "starting his life over," he decided he might as well go after the job he had really always wanted - being a chef. He enrolled at L'ecole Culinaire culinary school in St. Louis and went to work in a French restaurant.
Early on he realized that wasn't an ideal situation. He had joint custody of his son, and his hours at the restaurant always conflicted with the time he had with his son.
Daily had heard success stories about independent hot dog vendors who sold their fare on the streets in New York City and Chicago, and thought that might be an option if he could find the right location.
Plus, he liked the idea of being out front with the customers, interacting with them, rather than being stuck in a kitchen, behind the scenes.
He knew he needed a busy location, so he drove in to St. Louis City and set up his cart at Berra Park in The Hill neighborhood. Sales were strong, but Daily ran into problems with permits and neighboring restaurant owners who saw him as competition.
Other locations weren't nearly as successful, and Daily was just about ready to shut down his cart for good.
"It was really discouraging," said Daily. "I had tried it for eight months, and I was ready to just give up. I thought I was going to have to go back to plumbing."
Then a friend who plays in a band suggested Daily set up his cart one night outside of Otis Campbell's in Downtown Washington. With the manager's permission, Daily opened up at 9 p.m. one weekend night and sales were so brisk, he returned every weekend for a month.
'Power to the People'
Daily thought all of his troubles were behind him until one night a city official informed him that he couldn't have his hot dog cart set up on the sidewalk. He was in violation of a city law because his cart was set up on a public right of way.
Daily had obtained a Washington business license, a tax ID number and a permit from the Franklin County Health Department, but he now found out that he needed a special use permit from the city of Washington to operate.
While the situation was in the process of being resolved, Daily had to close down his hot dog cart, upsetting his customers.
"Word spread fast," said Daily. "People were calling (the city) asking, 'Why'd you get rid of the hot dog guy?' They were outraged."
Three customers were so incensed that they established a Facebook page for the cause, "Save the Otis Campbell's Hot Dog Guy." Within six hours, 1,000 people had joined the group, Daily noted.
In the end, the Washington City Council granted Daily a one-year special use permit. "Power to the people," Daily said, smiling.
"Presentation Is Everything"
Knowing the only way he could get enough customers to make the hot dog venture worth its while was if he sold a product unlike something people would make in their own kitchens, Daily chose to sell what he considered the best hot dog he could find - Nathan’s all beef jumbo hot dogs.
"They are great quality," he remarked, "a quarter-pound."
"If I was just doing plain old hot dogs, this wouldn't work."
Daily also knew he needed to sell an image. So he purchased an old-fashioned pushcart, donned a white button-down shirt with a bow tie and set up his menu sign.
"Presentation is everything," he remarked.
Daily sells a variety of hot dog combinations, as well as a few other popular items, like nachos, gyros, tacos, bratwurst and Italian beef sandwiches. Prices range from $3 to $12. His most expensive item is the D-Day Dog, which features two hot dogs, six cheeses, bacon, Italian beef and a second bun on top.
"It’s the beginning of the end of your hunger, Daily commented.
His best selling dog is a request that came from some East Central College students. The Wonder Wienie is a Nathan's all beef jumbo hot dog with cream cheese, red onions and jalapeños.
Daily gives the items fun names because he knows that is, in part, what gets people to try some of his foods.
"The names are what's fun. People will buy it because of the name, but it’s a quality product, and that’s what brings people back."
"Food Truck Trend Meets Fast Food Meets Nostalgia"
Daily has his pushcart set up in Union on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the campus at East Central College (outside the cafeteria) and on Sundays at the NAPA Auto Parts store from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
He's in Washington on Fridays and Saturdays at any one of 35 approved locations. He posts the location on his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/wonderwienie.
The business is doing well, but Daily knows it could be better if he had a permanent location, a place customers always knew they could find him without looking.
Plus, the pushcart set up doesn't work well in bad weather. Rain and the winter months ruin his profits, Daily noted.
The idea to make his permanent location a giant pushcart and to set the world record with Guinness was mostly a gimmick, he said, a way to attract attention.
But he also sees it as satisfying a want from consumers.
"This takes the food-truck trend and merges it with fast food and nostalgia," he said, noting the original food vendor push carts go back to the 1800s with German immigrants selling sausages.
Daily said as he sees it, the food truck trend cannot be profitable long term unless the truck drives consumers to a permanent location where they know they can always find the food they crave.
"The biggest draw of fast food is convenience, so I asked myself how I could tap in to that market? Build a giant cart with a drive through.
"It's the food truck trend meets fast food meets nostalgia."