Austin Film Festival is one of the crowning jewels of our fair city’s fine arts movement. There is a lack of prioritizing about the best FREE parties with FREE booze, which is replaced by a well-deserved appreciation for the films that are chosen.
Each year we have the pleasure of being part of the festival as motivated and inspired viewers. This year however, through the advent of social media, we were reached by the Dog Days team for an advance screening of the film. The film will hold its World Premiere on Saturday, October 26 at the Galaxy 10 Theatre.
Dog Days is a fabulous documentary Co-Directed and Co-Produced by Laura Waters Hinson and Kasey Kirby which began filming back in 2009. The film holds a special place in my heart because it not only highlights what we love about the mobile industry, community, but also the other side of it. It’s not just the vendors and their powerful stories, but also the supporting community behind it.
The film follows Coite, an out of work engineer who decides it’s time to plunge his life savings into a business venture. This business venture just happens to be in an industry he has zero previous experience in, the mobile food industry. Coite’s business idea brings variety to Washington DC’s 300 hot dog carts to broaden their menus to compete with the ever-booming food truck industry, contributions to the ever-stagnant cog that is government regulations and the spirit of entrepreneurship to the silver screen. The story line is compelling, but the human interaction, struggle, fear and persistence left me feeling [joy, stress, eagerness, fright and motivation] throughout the film.
Coite’s success relies on that of the food carts he services. The film loops in Siyone, a middle-aged immigrant who owns one of the city’s hot dog carts. Coite and Siyone’s relationship serves as the anchor to the story as the struggle and challenges of mobile food in an evolving market are presented.
Sound familiar? Well, I didn’t plunge my life savings into foodtrailersaustin.com, but when I started I certainly had never built a website and I sure as hell knew nothing about food trailers aside from knowing they were delicious. Like me, Coite just wants to see these folks succeed, and his constant verbal praise and sense of responsibility is laden throughout the film.
I was lucky enough to not only get an advance screening of the film, but also interview one of the co-directors and co-producers, Kasey Kirby:
[Tony] Where did you and Laura sync up, and how did you set your eyes on a street food documentary?
[Kasey] We were in the same film grad program at American University. We met in 2006, and we actually didn’t meet in class. I was working on a project in Rwanda in 2006, and my roommate at the time had invited me. Laura was putting the Rwanda project on, and we bumped into each other. She was shooting her senior thesis film there, and I just ended up working on it with her.
Fast forward to us on Dog Days, and it began as a result of both us traveling internationally quite a bit. We wanted to invest in a more local story. We stumbled upon it, and as we got more into it it became into what it is. It just so happened to be a food story.
[Tony] How did you stumble into the story?
[Kasey] Coite was a mutual friend. I barely knew him, but Laura knew him a little better. He basically told Laura what he was doing, so Laura came to me, and thought it may be interesting to pursue. We chatted about it, and then decided to plunge into it. We started talking to vendors, listening to their stories and then just went for it.
[Tony] Why hot dog carts? There is a much sexier side of street vending in Food Trucks isn’t there?
[Kasey] As we were following Coite (2009), there wasn’t much by way of trucks in the street in DC. There may have been 3-4 trucks. As trucks became bigger and bigger, we knew that’d be a large part of the story. We were pretty invested with Coite and Siyone, and wanted to stick with that story.
For so many years, the hot dog cart was the staple. That’s what plunged the scene into wanting more options, more vibrant culture. To us, that was the gateway which opened up the flood gates for a variety of food. While the food trucks are certainly more popular on the scene, that story of the hot dog was what led people to see more options. Coite was at the beginning stages of bringing new food to the streets.
[Tony] The film took place at the initial boom of Food Trucks in America. Did you worry for Coite’s success as Food Trucks began to gain traction in DC?
[Kasey] It’s interesting because he (Coite) talked about (not in the film), “Could I or should I have just started a food truck?” The whole reason he got into it was it because he saw these vendors that were stuck sellling hot dogs. Not because they wanted to, but it was what was available and economically feasible. He wanted to give them the freedom. He wanted to bring new food to the street and also work with the existing vendors.
The perception of the hot dog cart is a more mini convenient store than a legitimate lunch spot. I personally don’t see them as the same category or market as the food truck. People walking by weren’t thinking lunch, they wanted a pack of gum or something. That was one of his biggest obstacles.
As filmmakers, a time or two into the film we wondered wether we wanted to bring more food trucks as characters in the film due to their recent growth. We ultimately decided that you’re limited to 75-80mins of screen time. Its such a complicated back drop with the supplies monopoly, regulations, restaurant lobbying etc. We couldn’t tackle it all.
We just felt that Coite and Siyone’s story was about entrepreneurship and the struggles they deal with and the obstacles that need to be overcome. Certainly food trucks are the low hanging fruit, but we really felt like we were invested in Coite and Siyone’s story. It could have been a truck or cart, but the entrepreneurship was the story.
[Tony] Although the highlight of the film is the food cart industry, community is the driving factor. Were food cart owners united prior to Coite creating Food Chain?
[Kasey] In the hot dog cart world, the ones that we talked to are very uninterested or distrustful of any outside forces. They want to be left alone to work hard and operate on their own. There’s not a lot of collectivism between them. They certainly trust each other though. Any outside forces (government, depots) that rock their boat definitely receive some push back from them. *You can see this in the film in the spirited Task Force conversations and the comedic banter Siyone exchanges with the depot owner when checking her receipt*
Coite found it difficult ot get into the circle because the vendors were so distrustful of the depots. Coite wanted to provide an alternative, and there were a lot of barriers to break down and earn their trust. It took him quite a while to do so. Once he had Siyone’s trust, the vendors chatted amongst themselves, and based on Siyone’s recommendation, were able to open their mind to Coite’s concept.
In a lot of ways, it may be more detrimental to their (food cart owners) cause for them to be so self-sufficient. Food trucks used their unity to fight the regulations, and this has made their cause more quick to receive attention and action.
[Tony] There is an interesting aspect of the film where the food cart’s immigrant workers focus on staple American food (hot dogs) and the new food trucks are focusing on very ethnic cuisine like Korean Tacos. Do you see this as a reflection of American immigrants retaining their cultures as opposed to assimilating?
[Kasey] It is an interesting dynamic there. In the end of the film, Siyone was making an authentic Ethiopian dish. She talked about having a catering business wiht Eritrean food. The cart size limiations and food supplies limitations it’s just not feasible. Hot dogs were always the more economical things and easiest to sell. They cram as many as they can into the cart and boil them up.
Part of it is that they came as refuges. When they (cart owners in the film) first arrived, their move to serve hot dogs was a look at American culture. Vendors grill in the open, that’s what the deduction of what the American person was and what they liked. That’s what was seen as the viable option 20 years ago.
I think there is definitely a shift in wanting to go back to a variety of cultures. It’s a bit of the irony. There are a lot of food truck owners selling Ethiopian or other ethnic-centric food, while immigrants are selling American. It’s changing though. Siyone got her new cart and she’s selling gyros now and expanding. There is a shift, but it will just take time for hot dog vendors to adapt.
[Tony] The overlay of the film is street food, but what message were you attempting to communicate to your audience?
[Kasey] From early screenings that we had they (the audience) liked the fact that all perspectives are presented. The film doesn’t feel like it’s driving an agenda. The audience is free to land at a conclusion that they want to. We never wanted it to be an issue film that vanished once the issue was resolved. It’s a film about the human story of entrepreneurship with the issue as the backdrop. We didn’t want it to lose relevenacy once the issue was resolved.
We’re trying to highlight this lost art of entreprenuership. Today, people want to go from inception to overnight success or the instant offer of financial backing. There just aren’t a lot of people willing to roll up their sleeves and scrape fry grease off the floor. I feel like it’s a lost art today.
[Tony] I had the opportunity to be in DC earlier this year and got a first-hand look at their new food truck regulations. Has any progress been made with the food cart permit moratorium?
[Kasey] I just stopped by Siyone’s cart the other day and see how she was doing. She said there is some movement there which is encouraging. I just don’t know all that it entails. it’s not like they’ve opened up 500 new licenses. There’s a small step, but she was encouraged that there at least is some level of addressing the issues in the area.
One of the difficult things is that hot dog carts there’s no base of constituents that are getting council members re-elected. It’s just not on the top of the list.
[Tony] Are non-badge holders for Austin Film Fest able to see the screening of the film?
[Kasey] Yes they are. They can buy individual tickets to both the World Premiere and the second screening. The first venue seats about 190 and the second seats about 90. Were excited to see everyone and vote on the film if they like it.