During this past weekend of protests on Capitol Hill, a pile of debris went up in flames around East Pine Street and 11th Avenue on Saturday night as a masked-up hot dog vendor appeared to casually serve food a few steps away. The photo taken was just one snapshot from the most recent civil unrest in the neighborhood, sparked by the ruling from a Kentucky grand jury that brought no charges against Louisville police for Breonna Taylor’s killing. But the image was striking.
The vendor is Dirty Dog, which will be a familiar name for those who have spent any time near that corner in recent years. Pre-pandemic, the stand — which serves the ubiquitous Seattle version of a hot dog, slathered with cream cheese, among other beef and vegetable options — established itself as a late-night favorite in the neighborhood. Since June, it’s been a fixture in one of the most active areas of protest in the city.
Once known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), the blocks surrounding Dirty Dog and Cal Anderson Park have been the site of tense standoffs between police and protesters, beginning in late May and early June, when cops in riot gear tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed demonstrators for nights on end. Police eventually withdrew from the nearby East Precinct, but they returned weeks later, and the city cleared out encampments in the area at the urging of Mayor Jenny Durkan.
The CHOP was short-lived, but protests continue on Capitol Hill on a regular basis, and through it all, Dirty Dog has been at its usual corner, slinging hot dogs, often with long lines of people snaking down the block. “I have a good relationship down there and a lot of regular customers,” owner Binyam Wolde tells Eater Seattle. “I don’t think it’s that dangerous, like you see on the news.”
Wolde says that the COVID-19 pandemic has had much more of an impact than the protests, dramatically reducing his business since the spring. He used to have six locations, including an outpost by the ShowBox and one near CenturyLink Field. But now, he’s down to just the one stand on East Pine, which he’s been operating for almost seven years. He says this last stand is the only thing keeping his business afloat.
When Seattle’s demonstrations against police brutality took over the area near the stand in June, Dirty Dog just happened to be at the nexus of it all, but he didn’t shut down. Wolde saw that protesters were hanging around all day, and often didn’t have too many options for meals. So he and one another employee went to work, serving as much food as they could.
Dirty Dog wasn’t a mutual aid kitchen, like a few operations that popped up around the time when the CHOP was first established, but Wolde says he has served protesters for free, and he’s worked with a nearby church to offer food to people facing housing insecurity.
For the most part, Dirty Dog hasn’t run into too much trouble. But when protests grew more intense in the wake of the Breonna Taylor ruling last week, Wolde says a few people approached his stand and broke his umbrella — although other protesters came to his aid and told the aggressors to back off. “I spent a lot of money to get that umbrella,” he says wistfully.
The burning debris during the protests was only a brief inconvenience, apparently. Wolde doesn’t even quite remember what day it happened. While he did have to end service for the rest of the day, at the moment the photo seen above was taken, someone was in the middle of ordering a hot dog, so Wolde and his fellow worker finished the transaction. “We can’t just stop in the middle of it; we need to serve that person,” he says. Not long after, police dispersed demonstrators with blast balls and used foam to extinguish the fire.
Still, it’s unlikely that the stand could last if there were any more damage or disruptions of service. Wolde says Dirty Dog paused service earlier this summer when authorities came to clear out the CHOP, a period in which he lost a lot of money. He applied for grants and loans (and even got a few thousand dollars through the Seahawks organization, since Wolde used to operate at the stadium). But the money goes quickly, and expenses will start piling up once the colder weather sets in — a covered canopy can cost upward of $25,000, he says. Dirty Dog started a GoFundMe to try to raise some cash.
Wolde — who emigrated to Seattle from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when he was 16 years old — had intended to begin expanding the business this year. He wanted to get a food truck and add more items to the menu, possibly some flavors influenced by his home country. He compares his vending operation to something akin to a tech startup: creating a small platform then gradually building it up. But the pandemic scuttled those plans, and now he’s just doing everything he can to get by, sidewalk fires be damned.
“I built this business from scratch, and my idea was to take it to the next level. I didn’t have anything when I started,” he says. “I can’t let it go — this is my passion.”