The Gaspee Business Network is dedicated to a level playing field for all businesses in Rhode Island, from the biggest to the smallest. Rhode Island politicians should work towards the same goal, and the GBN is determined to replace those who will not with those who will. This article is a recount of Robert Martinez’s story, one of the Gaspee Business Network’s newest members. Mr. Martinez is a veteran and was the owner of Doc’s Devil Dawgs Hot Dog Co..
Predominately, the Rhode Island General Assembly wants the citizens of Rhode Island to believe the massive amount of regulations, fees, and taxes they impose upon businesses throughout the state are only taking a “fair share” of money from millionaires who don’t need it anyhow.
There are, of course, successful businesses in which a person with the courage to take a risk and bet their livelihood on an idea, made it to a position of wealth in Rhode Island. Yet many, even most, fail at an aggregate loss of millions of dollars, which was put at risk on ideas that did not succeed.
Rob’s story is the more frequent one lived by people looking to earn a living in the Ocean State, but seldom heard in the press or from politicians in Rhode Island.
In 2014, Doc’s Devil Dawgs Hot Dog Co. began when Mr. Martinez risked $6,000 of his savings to buy and start his own business and to, as he says, “give back to the community.” Although $6,000 may not seem like much to many in Rhode Island, it was much of everything Rob had, but he insisted upon making it on his own.
First Attempt: Allens Avenue in Providence
Rob’s first thought was to go where he was most familiar. He worked at a business near Allens Avenue and thought it would be a good opportunity to set up his stand were there were a number of small offices off of Allens Avenue including branches of GTECH and Roger Williams University. Although he made some small profits in this area, it was not enough. He had to move.
Second Attempt: Burnside Park
Rob understood that the largest population of working people looking for a quick meal is in cities where businesses and foot traffic are most abundant. Across from the Marriott in Providence, Burnside Park appeared to be a good location over Allens Avenue to finally start making a profit on his investment.
Yet this new opportunity came with conditions, one must pay to play in Rhode Island of course and in particular when public and private interests work together. Providence and the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy demanded $100 a year plus 10% of the profits earned. This is of course on top of the litter fees, licensing fees, and registration fees he was already paying.
“Most days I was bringing home $30 in profit. $30 dollars!” Mr. Martinez said when speaking to other business owners at the Gaspee Business Network event. “But I was happy to do it. I loved my business and the people I was serving. Everyone has to eat, you know?”
Nevertheless, he had to move on. It was just too much of an expense at too little benefit.
Final Attempt: The East Side of Providence and Brown University
Rob couldn’t continue to work so many hours with such little reward. He considered his options and the people who were visiting his stand. Younger people, typically with less money to spend and less time to eat, were a better demographic to sell his food. So off to Brown University and Thayer Street he went.
Setting up on or near Thayer Street is a challenge. Parking meters, traffic, and gaining proximity to where people are walking is tough. But Mr. Martinez was determined. He arrived early and worked until there was nothing more to sell or no one left to buy, that is until the stores on and around Thayer Street took notice.
Soon enough, an owner of a sandwich shop approached Rob to accuse him of taking away customers from his business. Rob was not deterred. “What are free markets but competition? Why not give people options. Let the best lunch win!”
When it was realized that he could not be intimidated, the brick and mortar stores joined together to use the Rhode Island and Providence government to suppress their competition as the “Hope Street Merchants Association.” With the complaint that competition was cutting into their profits and despite the fact that all food truck vendors were following the law, they demanded the politicians take action . . . and of course they did.
According to the Brown Daily Herald, Paul Gervais, owner of Buddha Belly stated the police were “hostile and intimidating” and Don Fecher, CEO of Mama Kim’s stated the police “threatened my staff and my company.”
Yet the pressure and bullying from those in government and bigger business did not stop there. According to Mr. Martinez, a petition was being sent around and City Hall was ready to act. Soon enough, regulations ensued that made operating a food truck business on the East Side of Providence almost impossible.
Vendors were required to be 300 feet, the length of a football field, from any brick and mortar food vendor, making it nearly impossible to situate a food truck close enough for most walkers to notice. Also, food truck vendors could only stay in one location for a total of four hours, and as Mr. Martinez points out, that includes the 40 minutes or so to set up and break down his equipment, as well as cook the food.
In early 2015, Robert Martinez had to close the Doc’s Devil Dawgs Hot Dog Co.. Despite his hard work, investment, risk taking, and dedication, the city of Providence beat him down.
The Gaspee Business Network Steering committee is looking into private financing and other resources, to help Rob get his business back. We all understand the risks involved in starting one’s own business, and to fail by one’s own decisions is one thing, but to fail due to the red tape and cronyism of Rhode Island politicians and government is another.