Vendor finds haven from corporate world

T.J.’s Dawg House open at Maple Tree Place

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

T.J. Chelak Jr. plucks a hot dog from the grill, drops it in a bun and wraps it with foil. He flashes a smile and tells the customer it’s the best hot dog in the whole country.

A steady stream of patrons stops by his cart in Maple Tree Place on this sunny Friday afternoon. It’s a good day for selling hot dogs.

T.J.’s Dawg House opened in August. The wheeled, stainless-steel cart operated by Chelak is parked between Best Buy and Christmas Tree Shops.

Chelak, 40, was laid off from IBM five years ago. He said the hot dog stand gives him a chance to control his own destiny.

“My thought behind the whole thing was to stay out of corporate America,” he said.

He sells Vienna brand hot dogs, each a quarter-pound of beef on a king-size bun. Other offerings include drinks, chips, cookies and brownies.

Dressed in a blue and purple jacket and a black Rossignol ski hat, Chelak banters with customers while serving up hot dogs. Many of his patrons work nearby.

“We’re going to keep him alive so we don’t have to have soup or lunch boxes,” joked Best Buy employee Katie Haskins after she placed an order. “We can have a hot dog instead.”

Chelak’s career path took a sharp turn in 2002 when he was among the 1,500 employees laid off at IBM’s plant in Essex Junction.

He grew up in Binghamton, N.Y. and earned a degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, he landed a job at IBM. He worked there for 14 years, pulling in about $60,000 a year as a liaison between production workers and engineers.

Like many of the laid-off workers, Chelak struggled to replace the well-paying job. But unlike many, he had no family to support and little debt. He could do anything he wanted.

“For three days, I was like, my God, what am I going to do,” Chelak said. “But then I was able to sit back and say let’s do something you would not normally think of.”

After the layoff, he bounced around a bit, working at Smugglers’ Notch as a children’s snowboard instructor and then at The Home Depot in Williston.

When Chelak was chasing down carts left in the parking lot, he noticed the hot dog vendor in front of the store. Soon he was working there. But then the owner fell on hard times, Chelak said, and his hours were cut. So he opened his own stand.

It’s not an easy business. The hot dogs cost him more than $6 a pound, so his profit margin is thin. He’s found it hard to grab the attention of shoppers. And he wonders how he’ll handle the cold weather and icy wind in coming weeks.

Still, Chelak is determined to stay open through the holiday shopping season. He said he will close after Christmas, then decide whether to reopen next spring.

“Here I am a business owner for the first time in my whole life,” he said. “We’ll see how it pans out.”