Florida's Thong-Wearing Hotdog Ladies (Or, The Most Important Moment In Florida History)
In the '80s and early '90s, Florida was fortunate enough to be served by hotdog vendors wearing thong bathing suits. Some of these suits were bikinis no different from what you see on beaches today; others were a forgotten type of string one-piece that could be mistaken for nudity from a distance, and which we aren't even sure we can show you without the governors of the internet labeling us a porn site.
For another look, here's some genuine footage of the hotdog ladies intercut with unrelated clips of some guy in a truck. Apparently, he couldn't get permission to film himself in the same frame as the vendors:
The industry began, according to legend, when pioneer Gloria Gonzalez accidentally shrank her bikini in the dryer and then decided to wear it anyway. If that sounds at all unlikely to you, you might prefer the alternative story of vendors gradually realizing that skin attracted customers and just electing to push it as far as they could. When wearing a thong attracts twice as much business as keeping the cheeks covered, it's an easy choice.
Now, "sexy women selling stuff" isn't some crazy phenomenon isolated to South Florida in one specific era. Scholars reading this are surely already familiar with the betel nut beauties of Taiwan who sell the stimulating (but fairly unhealthy) betel nut out of street kiosks, and for the last few decades in Washington state, bikini baristas have had to face off against regulators who want them to wear pants. But there's something about selling greasy hotdogs outdoors that added an extra coating of Florida-style sleaze in some people's eyes. Certainly, it was enough that ...
People Wanted To End This Dirty, Dirty Practice
Plenty of Floridians loved the hotdog girls of course, as did tourists who came by just to snap photos. Others (jealous fat women, claimed vendors) had all kinds of complaints. For starters, hygiene. What happens, wondered the complainers, when these women sold hotdogs right after touching their butts? That would make the hotdogs gross!
The glib answer to this, of course, would be, "Yo, you're buying a hotdog. That thing is 90-percent ass already, there's no making it grosser." (A more serious response would be, "Yeah, and what if you touch your FACE before selling a hotdog, your face looks like a butt.") Because barring any, er, penetrative butt touching, the face is very much the more risky source of germs -- which is why all food vendors are supposed to wash their hands, and why the hotdog ladies' carts included the same mandatory hand-washing stations as everyone else's.
A second objection came from those who figured the sexy getup was merely an advertisement, with actual sex the product for sale. Clearly, these women were having sex with customers, taking in just as many wieners as they dished out.
Police did sometimes accuse them of this, as a part of longer lists of vague offenses. But when newspapers inquired after more details, police admitted that they'd never arrested any hotdog vendor for prostitution nor appeared to have any evidence of it occurring. A fair number of the women had experience as strippers but not more explicit sex work.
There was a third objection, though, and it was that the women might be killing people.
They Were Stopping Traffic, The Bad Way
That is, might be killing people by causing traffic accidents. Which isn't technically murder, but is still something to be avoided.
This accusation too was checked out by newspapers, who discovered that, around Tampa Bay anyway, no, none of the road accidents anywhere near the hotdog carts cited the vendors as contributing factors. Over in Fort Lauderdale, however, there was a little more truth to the rumor.
Over the course of two months in 1993, two separate times, a car slammed into the one in front because the rear driver was distracted by the rear of a vendor. One of these collisions, a four-car pileup, totaled the car in front. In the other, the driver in front was pregnant, and the accident sent her into labor two months early.
The hotdog vendor working this intersection, 23-year-old Annette Baerman, admitted that she saw three other accidents that summer from drivers who stared at her instead of the road. Then police came by and arrested her.
A couple months later, they let her go, based on the little technicality that she "hadn't done anything at all illegal." The cops had thought they were booking her on anti-nudity laws, but when the city attorney got around to reading the law, it talked about breasts and genitals but said nothing about the butt. You can't just arrest people when things go wrong, because ...
"Oh, I'm Sorry! I Thought This Was America!"
A lot of backlash against thong-wearing hotdog ladies spoke to nebulous moral outrage rather than specific harms. Like, when people failed to convince anyone by simply saying "those women look practically naked!" they'd point out that school buses of children were sometimes able to see and ogle the women. Exactly what the problem was with this, they did not clarify.
"At least we work," said one vendor, Hala Salaman, interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. "I thought this was what the States were all about, but I guess not," she added, before contrasting her situation with what women have to deal with in places like Saudi Arabia.
Which might sound like a native Floridian naming a famously oppressive place of which they have little actual knowledge. But Salaman was actually a native Saudi Arabian, who came to America as a girl, finished school, and started operating her own hotdog cart because that's the sort of thing women weren't allowed to do in Saudi Arabia. Then she switched from wearing shorts to wearing a bathing suit because that's also the sort of thing women weren't allowed to do in Saudi Arabia -- weren't allowed to wear bathing suits of any kind in public, or indeed to show their faces in public.
Her business grew, till she owned seven different carts operated by employees parked at various intersections. When a reporter spent a day with her, they saw her serving such people as quintessential Florida man Todd, visiting her as a treat despite being on house arrest for drug possession. Or leering salesman Dan, who said, "Now I can see why the women in Saudi Arabia wear veils" -- a statement that, like Saudi clothing, has layers.
Then Florida Started To Ban Thongs
Sounds crazy, we know. Florida banning thongs is like Florida banning nice cars or 4-foot-tall bodybuilders; that stuff is what Florida's made of. But the '90s brought a push to ban thongs -- not just thong-wearing food-sellers but all thongs. People fought thongs as part of campaigns against nudists, saying either one leads to sexual promiscuity, AIDS, and rape.
We mentioned earlier that anti-nudity laws allowed for thongs. Now came newly restrictive laws that offered a comical level of specificity. (In fact, there is a small section of a 1993 ordinance, still on the books today, defining the buttocks.) "Attire that is insufficient to comply with this requirement," says the emergency ordinance, "includes, but is not limited to, G-strings, T-backs, dental floss and thongs." The parts of this law limiting breast exposure went into similar detail: "Each female person may determine which one-fourth of her breast surface area contiguous to and containing the nipple and the areola is to be covered."
In 1990, Sarasota arrested five thong-wearing beachgoers, based on a new interpretation of an existing law. That same year, Florida passed a law banning thongs statewide ... in state parks and state beaches, which doesn't cover a huge area, but still. That law appears to remain in effect today. This was the same year that a Florida judge ruled that a 2 Live Crew album was obscene, banning it. Really banning it: You could get arrested for selling the album. It was not a good summer for freedom in Florida.
The Mud Brawl
When they weren't facing the long arm of the law, hotdog vendors faced other threats. Like gators of course. Always gotta be careful to set up your cart away from the gators. But also each other.
Hotdog vendors have to defend their turf against rivals. We've told you previously about how violent this can get in London, and even far more civilized places like Florida aren't immune. One vendor, Cindy Gray, took a week off in 1991 to repair her Purrfect 10 Wiener Wagon. Then on her return, she found that her space was now occupied by one of Hala Salaman's carts. The carts sold alongside each other for a tense three days, then a fight broke out between the rival women, one that only ended when one of Hala's employees sprayed everyone with mace (the mace was there for handsy customers).
Police intervened as well, but this was the sort of dispute that could only be resolved with more combat. So a month later, the two women agreed to a mud wrestling competition.
When the day came, Hala chose not to participate, instead sending in her place the very employee who had brought out the mace during the original fight. In place of a ring girl, the arena had a male stripper. The two women faced each other, and ...
Okay, now that we read a play-by-play of the fight, it's clear spectators were after something other than athletic competition or combat, something you probably won't get from seeing the action recounted in text. But the interested parties took it seriously, and before a final round in which Cindy was declared the winner, her supporters stepped into the ring, uninvited, to help her out. Then the male stripper somehow ended up part of the fray. Then a fan jumped in and started punching everyone.
The vendors woke up the next morning covered in rashes, which would put them out of commission for weeks. That Florida mud had been infected. So, turns out this job really did have some issues with hygiene.
In The End, The Authorities Won
Those limited anti-thong laws we mentioned didn't hurt the vendors, but other ones targeted them more directly. In 1992, Palm Beach County passed a law demanding that the vendors adopt wider thongs. Gloria Gonzalez successfully got it struck down, then sued for the wages she'd lost during her time covered by that overbroad constraint. Pinellas County tried to outlaw exposing one's "anal cleft" then in 1993 clamped down on selling food while exposing "genitals, pubic hair, pubic hair region or buttocks." In 1994, Palm Beach tried a law forcing anyone working in a thong to stand behind a four-foot screen.
A different law proved most effective, and it spread from county to county. This one said all food vendors must provide bathroom access, so if you ran a cart, you needed to be right next to an indoor business that gave you permission to direct customers to their bathroom.
As you might realize, this law could well ban every kind of street food or food truck, though police were able to enforce it selectively against targets of their choice. And in fact the big push for this law came from a source who disliked all street food and food trucks: established businesses, angry with the competition.
Some hotdog vendors still operated in the years to come. One Brevard County woman, maybe realizing she was playing with fire either way, went so far as selling hotdogs in a thong while topless, and wound up arrested. But in time, the trend died out.
We've heard, though, that a lot of '90s properties have been getting reboots, so we think it's time to bring back the thong-wearing hotdog women. Right now, we know indoor dining is the real danger, and the mouth and nose are the place germs come from, so we think the best way to save Florida is an army of food vendors, whose thongs lure customers out of enclosed spaces into areas with good ventilation. They can wear T-back bikinis if they want, T-front ones too, whatever they like. (Just make sure they wear masks, some rules make sense.)