Over the last 35 years, street vendor Lou Cassaniti has built his business, Lou’s Street Food — a restaurant serving traditional American street food now located within Center Ithaca on the Commons — into a local iconic food destination. The restaurant has provided Cassaniti an outlet to combine his passions of serving both food and the Ithaca community.
“I have been 35 years on the Commons. What I am most known for is street food, such as pulled pork sandwiches, hot dogs, of course, and chicken tenders,” Cassaniti said. “I have always been successful.”
But Cassaniti told The Sun in an interview that he plans to retire after 2024, moving on from a career that has impacted the community for decades.
“The most sought out question for me is when am I going to retire,” Cassaniti said. “I am going to go one more year. Next year, I will hopefully work both here [Center Ithaca] and as a street vendor, then I will retire.”
One of the ways Cassaniti aims to assist the community is by keeping his prices competitive.
“I will not raise my prices. Food prices [go] up every week, and I refuse to do it,” Cassaniti said. “I get a multitude of clientele. I get drug dealers and even lawyers that line up… I try to keep my prices as low as possible so I can service everybody… There are people that come in here without any money, so I don’t ask them for money. I just give [food] to them.”
Cassaniti said he always knew he wanted to work in the culinary industry, inspired by his mother’s career as a waitress. Despite many doubting his success, he has sustained his business in Ithaca Commons for over three decades.
“My mother worked as a waitress for 50 years in local restaurants, so I got an interest and went to culinary school. There were too many good restaurants, and [critics] told me it was going to be very hard,” Cassaniti said. “[Despite this,] every day when I was out here on the Commons, I’d have 50 to 100 people in line buying hot dogs.”
Before difficulties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Cassaniti’s business inside of Center Ithaca, he spent most of his career working outside as a street cart vendor in the Ithaca Commons. For the last 10 of those years, he was often seen feeding sausages to a local celebrity of the Commons, a golden retriever named Riley — who belongs to the owners of Ithaca Outdoor Store — before she died in August.
“I got the hotdog stand over 30 years ago, and that was very profitable, so that’s what I did the longest. Riley was a very popular entity on the Commons,” Cassaniti said. “Her picture was taken 10 to 15 times a day. She’d sit near the hotdog cart… Everybody loved her.”
Not only does Cassaniti keep his focus on operating his business, but he also puts much of his focus towards aiding community organizations such as the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Tompkins County, a no-kill animal shelter that aims to protect companion animals and support responsible pet stewardship.
“[For customers] who want to give more, I tell them to put a dollar or two down for the SPCA. The SPCA is the most important thing to me because we have to support our animals,” Cassaniti said. “Ithaca is a very big dog city. We’re an animal loving town. I have worked for 30 years and raised a substantial amount of money for them through the Riley Foundation after losing her.”
In addition to donating money from his business to the SPCA year round, Cassaniti also hosts a Hot Dog Day fundraiser each year where all proceeds from the day go directly to the local animal welfare organization.
“Since Riley sat with me for 10 years in the Commons, everyone knew that it was the second Friday of May every year that we did our annual fundraiser. [Through] my fundraiser, 100 percent of every dollar that I take in goes to the SPCA. Not a nickel goes towards my cost,” Cassaniti said. “Thirty years we’ve done this. We’ll get 400 to 500 people in line. It’s all donations. I’ve gotten $100, $200 for a hotdog. We don’t care if it’s a dollar, just throw it in the bucket and we’ll thank you.”
Donations are important for non-profit organizations such as the SPCA of Tompkins County, whose executive director Jim Boudreau said its status as an open admission, no-kill shelter — the first of its kind in the country when it became such in 2001 — makes it costly to operate.
“We do not turn away animals, and we are committed to providing care for any medical conditions that are treatable,” Boudreau said. “There are facilities and medical equipment to maintain and staff who make caring for our animals possible while they are in our care.”
Boudreau said Cassaniti’s various donations have been a huge help for the organization, which has held Cassaniti’s generosity in high regard.
“We are always so grateful to Lou for doing his annual event, Hot Dog Day — Lou is also a great spokesperson and advocate for the SPCA, often encouraging other business owners he knows to provide support,” Boudreau said. “Simply put, we could not do what we do without donations from individuals or businesses or events that are held to benefit us, like Lou’s. We are not a county-run shelter, we are a non-profit that relies on the generosity of our local community to make our work possible.”
Before Cassaniti retires for good, he looks forward to doing what he loves for one final time — working as a street vendor. His favorite part about being a street vendor is being constantly surrounded by people.
“It’s the people, the tourists and everybody,” Cassaniti said. “At a hot dog stand, they ask for information, what’s going on. People always ask me, ‘Where’s Cornell University,’ and I always tell them, ‘It’s up there, you can’t miss it.’”