Los Angeles Times
July 5, 2004 Monday
Home Edition

Doubts don't dog him

by AL MARTINEZ

I sing today of a happy man, who sits in the sunlight of a free
country, celebrating the right of individual choice, one hot dog at a
time.

At 35, Shawn Yekikian has for the last 18 years exercised that right
by shunning the big-time competitive world of moneymaking to sell
dogs, chips and soft drinks from a small cart parked less than a
block from the ocean.

"It's what I want to do," he says, preparing a hot dog for a customer
with the loving care of a gourmet chef, removing it carefully from
its steamy confines and laying it into a Vienna bun. "I'll do it as
long as I can."

He tells about a man who drove up one day in a new $300,000
Lamborghini and bought a hot dog. "I asked why a guy with a car like
that would buy a hot dog from a vendor," Yekikian says. "He said
because he liked to help the little people!"

The hot dog man laughs loudly. He's a big man, 300 pounds and 6
feet-plus, and his laugh fits his size. "So I guess I'm a little
people."

He calls his stand "Rainy Day Hot Dogs," in honor of his 4-year-old
daughter, Rain, whose name he chose because rain is gentle and
soothing. His logo is a hot dog in a cloud, with rain falling from
it.

I had passed his stand many times at Topanga Canyon Boulevard and
Pacific Coast Highway. There was always someone sitting with him at a
small table he brings so his customers can relax and eat their dogs,
and maybe join him in discussions of sports and politics. Music from
a portable radio plays softly throughout the day.

I love hot dogs almost as much as I love ice cream and martinis, so I
stopped by one day, and his dogs are delicious. Yekikian buys kosher
Shofar products, which he considers the best, and asks all his
customers "Is that OK?" as they eat, even if they have stopped by
daily for months and obviously savor every bite.

What struck me, in addition to the care he displayed preparing the
dog, was the aura of joy that seemed to surround him. I sensed a
happy man, and in a world of mind-numbing stress, happiness is a
rarity indeed. He lives no life of quiet desperation but rises each
day at 4 a.m. to face the prospect of doing exactly what he wants to
do from dawn to sunset, at least six days a week.

Bearded, with longish hair and thick-lensed glasses, Yekikian was
born near Boston, and although brought to L.A. at six months, that
part of him that loves sports remains in Beantown. He wears a Boston
Red Sox cap and a Boston Celtics T-shirt. His good luck piece is a
Boston Patriots cap hanging from the front of his cart.

He began selling hot dogs just after high school, helping an old man
who taught him the business, and decided that the life of a hot dog
vendor was what he wanted. It was a laid-back outdoors existence for
a guy who is easygoing and loves meeting people.

But his Armenian parents wanted their sons to be professionals. Of
Yekikian's brothers, one is a lawyer, the other a dentist.

At first, Yekikian lied and said he'd given up selling hot dogs, when
in fact, after his mentor died, he'd bought one of his carts and had
gone into business for himself. Later, feeling guilty and wishing to
honor his father's request, he attended college for two years while a
friend watched his cart, and he earned an associate of arts degree in
criminal justice. Finally, he told his pop the truth and won his
blessing to spend his life adding to the 2 billion pounds of hot dogs
Americans eat each year.

"I love this place," he says, referring to the oceanside location, as
the number of customers increases proportionately to the going-home
commuter traffic. A man in a Mercedes stops to buy a dog. A young guy
in a pickup buys two, as he does every day. Then: a dude in black
leather in a black SUV. A motorcyclist. Two women in a yellow VW. A
Mexican day worker.

A hot dog sells for $2.50. You select your own condiments from
containers laid neatly in a row, except for the mayonnaise, which he
keeps refrigerated.

"This isn't the most important job in the world," Yekikian says, a
little self-consciously. "It's not like being a policeman or a
fireman. But I like it." He makes enough to get by, he adds. What
more does he need?

I write of Shawn Yekikian because in his way he glorifies America's
basic freedom, that being the freedom to choose a career less
traveled. It is in the same category of not doing what everyone else
thinks is right, but setting off on a path of one's own because
that's what a whisper in the wind says to do.

Hot dogs may not be the healthiest food in the world and they aren't
even native food, but they somehow represent us, and the spirit
displayed by Yekikian.

So celebrate America the next time you drive into the canyon from the
ocean. Buy a hot dog.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at
[email protected]

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: PICTURE OF CONTENTMENT: For 18 years, Shawn Yekikian,
35, has sold hot dogs from a cart at Topanga Canyon Boulevard and
Pacific Coast Highway. "It's what I want to do," he says simply.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Annie Wells Los Angeles Times