Harlem’s The Little Hot Dog Wagon Is on Its Way to Becoming a Household Name

Dawn Demry’s signature kraut is set to take on the world.

On the left, Dawn Demry, with her niece, Jade Hagins. | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

When Dawn Demry conceived of The Little Hot Dog Wagon four years ago, she had just lost her job, gone through a health scare, and had no idea how to start a business. Today, Demry helms a burgeoning food brand on the cusp of nationwide exposure. And four weeks ago, she formally resigned from her job with CUNY to take it full steam ahead.

As the president, owner, chef, and visionary behind The Little Hot Dog Wagon—the Harlem-based food truck where she offers hot dogs, vegan sausages, and more, topped with her homemade, all-natural kraut—Demry has been an unstoppable force since she debuted in 2018. Key Foods has now contracted her to stock her signature kraut in their stores nationwide; she’s in talks to meet with Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods on potential opportunities; she has plans to debut the second iteration of her food truck next year; and will be a featured local vendor at the upcoming Thrillist Block Party taking place in Harlem on September 12.

But just a few years ago, life was very different.

In 2017, Demry, a Harlem native who went on to raise her own family there, survived breast cancer, having endured chemotherapy, radiation, and hair loss in the two years prior. In 2018 she lost her job at CUNY, where she was a career counselor and internship coordinator, due to budget cuts. While she was brought back after an interim because she was so valued, a cycle of layoffs continued—and after the fourth time in a single year, Demry decided it was time to venture off the well beaten path.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

It was then that she went directly to her uncle’s home to inquire about his custom food truck. For years, Demry had been eyeing his silver-sheened, custom-built hot dog wagon—one that he commissioned and never used, but wasn’t ready to part with. This time, he acquiesced. So began Demry’s days of pedaling her way through Harlem, selling hot dogs and burgers paired with the homemade kraut she had perfected for years: beloved by her family, always on the table for celebrations, and equally delightful as a marinade, dressing, or condiment.

“I pretty much hit the ground running,” recalls Demry. “It’s just like parenting; it didn’t come with a manual. I didn’t know the first place to start. All I knew was that I was laid off from my job, and the bills kept coming so I had to do something.”

And she did plenty. After building a small base of loyal customers, she educated herself on licensing credentials, tax IDs, and business operations. She researched how large food corporations and beverage brands became household names, and when her regulars wanted bottles of her kraut to take home, she learned how to make them shelf stable. Then she started making her own vegan hot sauce and relish, and as new patrons sought healthier meatless alternatives, she taught herself to make vegan sausages and veggie burgers, after conducting countless hours of market research.

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Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

For a time, she went back to work for CUNY, at their behest—albeit part-time and on her terms, splitting her days between the worlds of academia and food for a few years. Having summers off meant she could focus on her business, trying her hand at private events and building a wider clientele. But it left little time to expand production of her kraut, so last month she took the plunge, deciding to devote herself full-time to building her brand.

For Demry, the drive to succeed stems from the desire to serve her community—whether in Harlem from her truck’s usual corner at Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street; in Montclair, New Jersey, where she is also licensed; or at privately commissioned events, like in Connecticut. Hers is not a food business, she points out, but rather one of customer service.

“I always knew that I wanted to serve the customers, the people who believed in me. And I wanted to cater to them, because they are the ones who have made me who I am today,” says Demry.

The menu for The Little Hot Dog Wagon has stayed consistent (hot dogs, burgers, sausages, chili and salmon), but always informed by her community’s preferences. From fussy eaters to the health-conscious, her kraut, vegan and vegetarian offerings, and dedicated expansion into healthier alternatives (she makes her own fresh pineapple lemonade) have proven enormously popular.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Demry says her passion to create a great food brand—and her love of cooking—is inspired, in large part, by her father, a former FDNY officer and award-winning home cook. Those early lessons in home cooking also proved fruitful while raising her own two sons, both now college graduates who are pursuing entrepreneurial ventures of their own.

While the pandemic has been challenging for Demry and her business—including the loss of family members due to Covid-19 and endless pivots while attempting to stay operational—she has thrived nonetheless. Expanded marketing efforts led to an increase in private event bookings. And after upgrading her original wagon to a full-service trailer this past spring, she is planning to launch a second food truck next summer.

None of this would be possible, she notes, without the support of her family, friends, and the loyal community she serves daily. She gives back through motivational speaking in local high schools, encouraging young people to try their hand at entrepreneurship, and occasionally hires high school and college students to provide an up close look at her business operations, from bookkeeping to marketing.

And she has no plans to stop there—the kraut is available for nationwide shipping through Demry's online shop. As for what’s next, Demry has her eyes set on bringing in investors, hiring staff, and raising the brand’s visibility to new heights.

“I want the world to taste my kraut, to know about The Little Hot Dog Wagon. Because my goal is to become a household name. We’re just getting started,” says Demry.

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Thrillist and DoorDash partnered with Harlem Block Party Executive Producer Tren’ness Woods-Black to select four local Harlem business owners from Harlem Park to Park's Local Vendor Program. Each recipient received a grant furnished by Thrillist and DoorDash along with prominent exposure at Harlem Block Party and across a series of content/ social extensions amplifying their small business.
Swathi Reddy is a Louisiana-born, NYC-based freelance writer and marketer.