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Cornelius News

Dogged pursuit of small business ownership

Mary Zima: The owner of Zima’s Steamin’ Dogs provides a unique reminder that bigger is not always better / Photos by Tripp Liles

March 11. By Tripp Liles. It’s spring. We’re putting COVID in our rearview mirror, I hope, and there is nothing that screams outdoors and the good old USA like a hot dog. Every week for the past five years Cornelius resident Mary Zima has run her hot dog cart on West Catawba Avenue in downtown Cornelius selling some of the best dogs and links you could want.

Zima has been ever-present in the downtown area even as the landscape changes around her. In a sense she represents a bridge connecting the old and new Cornelius. The new, represented by the construction of the Cain Center for the Arts juxtaposed with the older shops nearby, which still provide a small town feel.

All-American business

The hot dog and Zima’s business model are uniquely American. She had no reason for boring office work and wanted to be her own boss. Hard work is a theme. She works week in, week out in almost any kind of weather, all year long.

Her rainbow awning cannot be missed as she stands on her feet cooking the dogs and links. She parks her car and cart in front of Cornelius Elementary School ready for business every day at 11:30 am Tuesday through Friday.

“I used to do this in Connecticut. When I moved here I had several full time jobs and I told my husband I could not do this,” she said. “So I looked at what was happening online and I went into a restaurant and found a local owner who was selling a hot dog cart. So we bought it off of her and we didn’t have to do much with it.”


The product she sells has a rich and unique tradition in our culture. It is long-held pop culture that cartoonist Tad Dorgan, who observed a vendor at the old Polo Grounds in New York City selling “hot dachshund sausage dogs” during a baseball game, as the one to coin phrase “hot dog” in the early 1900s. But many historians dispute this and thus, like many aspects of our immigrant culture, we will never know who really gave us the name hot dog.

As for the portable aspect of the hot dog business it was an early resident of New York City Charles Feltman who is credited with the first hot dog cart on Coney Island. In 1867, Feltman fitted a cart with a small stove in which he could boil sausages and a compartment for warming buns. The initial product was called Coney Island Red Hots and, voila, the modern hot dog food cart was born.

An original

Now, some 150 years later Zima’s business is booming. With a background in the restaurant industry she knew this was a cost efficient way to get into the business. She was one of the original street food vendors here and slowly the culture of street food has caught up. Her product is simple and delicious. She serves traditional hot dogs and links with all of the familiar side items.

“I have my regulars and I constantly have new people who stop and they just see me. They want to give the business to someone like me instead of you know…something bigger,” Zima said. “This is a local business and people want to support that. When I go out I also try to support the local business owners.”

Zima’s business is more than just a cart in front of a local elementary school. It is literally a small business on wheels.

“I do a lot of events all year. I do birthdays, fairs, softball games, work with the police department. It’s word of mouth. I wasn’t going to advertise. People just found me on Facebook and it just grew. I keep busy all year and I have events and it all works out. In five years you get to know people. The business has grown over time,” she said.

Family affair

It is also a family affair. Her whole family relocated to the area so everyone pitches in when necessary making this a true family business.

“My grandson helps me at some of the events when I get really busy. My husband handles the money and helps me get the cart ready—he’s always a big help,” Zima said. “Sometimes it’s a little hot but we all really like it here.