Real estate executive credits a hot-dog cart he bought at 15 for teaching him to work hard, treat people well and learn from failure.
Herky Pollock calls it the “single best job I ever had.”
Yet it didn’t involve cutting the real estate deals that bring new restaurants or retailers to the Pittsburgh region or launching the CBRE real estate firm, of which he is one of the founding owners.
This job represented commercial real estate at its most basic — selling hot dogs in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood. It was fast-casual long before fast-casual became famous.
A very young Pollock was inspired during a trip to Philadelphia, where he saw vendors selling hot dogs from carts and realized there was nothing like it in Pittsburgh.
So in 1979 at age 15, he set out for New Jersey to buy a “very gently used hot dog cart from a couple of women.”
The only problem was the cart boiled the hot dogs in water, which Pollock didn’t like. He rectified that by retrofitting it with a grill, one that could hold up to 45 hot dogs at a time.
Then he set up shop at the in Shadyside, selling 50 to 250 all-beef hot dogs a day with casings and a hint of garlic that he had delivered by train from New York. He also sold soft pretzels, popcorn, soda pop and bottles of water.
He named the business A La Cart.
At the time, “There was virtually no place to eat on the street” except for full-service, sit down restaurants and a deli, Pollock said. “There was nothing quick casual or fast.”
He worked the cart six days a week, with varying hours each day. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, he would stay open until 3 a.m. to capture the traffic leaving Shadyside bars for the night.
After Pollock, now 51, turned 16 and could drive, he took the cart on the road — setting up on Mount Washington, Downtown and on the North Side for special events like fireworks shows. He even showed up at Three Rivers Stadium, though that gig wasn’t a particularly pleasant one.
“I was getting kicked out by the guys who owned the parking lots,” he said.
While Pollock also did snow blowing and sold cutlery door-to-door part-time, the hot dog cart was his very first full-time job. And it proved to be a time he cherishes to this day.
“I could make my own hours. I was outside. I could dress in shorts. I was able to socialize with friends and other people, and I was able to make a lot of money doing something I loved,” he said.
Pollock said he made as much as $1,000 a week working the cart. He kept the job for about eight years. Eventually he gave it up — because he feared it could interfere with his real estate career.
“I didn’t want the reputation of being a hot dog vendor to blur into my real estate career, and oftentimes people were having a hard time making a distinction between the two,” he said.
“I was dealing with the same retailers and landlords as I was trying to get their real estate business. They looked at me as a hot dog vendor and didn’t take me very seriously.”
Still, selling hot dogs taught Pollock, now CBRE executive vice president and northeast director of the retailer services group, a bunch of valuable lessons.
“It taught me to work really hard and to be personable and to treat people well. People relied on me to be at a certain place every day. They needed me to be out there. It taught me discipline, structure, and responsibility,” he said.
Pollock also discovered he made more money “when I was personable with people, using my humor and personality to excel, even in selling hot dogs.”
Not to mention he learned how to get the best deals on hot dogs, buns and condiments. “I could tell you at any given time who had the best buns and the cheapest deals on buns,” he said.
And he found out the pitfalls of doing something on the cheap when he tried to retrofit a cart to make funnel cakes rather than buying one specifically designed for that purpose. The oil never got hot enough.
“It was a dismal failure,” he said.
Since those days, Pollock has risen to become one of the Pittsburgh region’s most prominent commercial real estate brokers. He also is part owner in the Burgatory restaurant chain and he owns development and construction businesses locally.
But he remembers his first job with fondness. “It taught me that if you work hard, good things can come from it,” he said.