Worker Justice

WJW Logo

The Capitol Times: El Chisme Co-op Wraps Hot Dogs with Bacon and Gossip

Read full article here.

For 12 years, a bustling food cart has drawn a crowd to a Raymond Road parking lot several evenings a week. Its name, on paper, was Brothers Hot Dogs.

But its biggest fans have long known the cart as El Chisme — Spanish for “The Gossip.” They bring their own folding chairs to hang out in the parking lot, make small talk in line and order the weekly special before they even ask what it is. 

“People who were just waiting for their food would start chatting and getting to know each other,” said Guadalupe Gomez. Gomez started the business with her husband Antonio Estrada, selling hot dogs wrapped in bacon and topped with grilled onion and jalapeño, a style perfected by Mexican street vendors on both sides of the border.

“Sometimes people would show up and say, ‘We came to see what the gossip is today,’” Gomez said. The name stuck, and the owners officially changed it last year.

At first, the family set up their cart at their own corner. Then Gomez urged her husband to take it a couple blocks over, to busier Raymond Road. El Chisme has been vending at 5800 Raymond Road, just west of South Whitney Way, ever since. 

“People look for us there,” Gomez said. “They know where to find us because we’ve been in the same place for 11 years.”

As more customers stopped by the hot dog stand, many craved other Mexican street foods. One frequent request: esquites, a corn salad prepared with mayonnaise, salty cotija cheese, chili powder and lots of mayonnaise. 

“She was like, ‘No, we don’t sell corn,’” recalled daughter Rebecca Gomez Estrada, 22, who now co-owns the business. “After four people on the same day asked if she had corn, she said, ‘No, I sold out, but I’ll have more tomorrow.’

“It just goes to show that as an immigrant … you don’t take no as an answer.”

Often, Gomez would add something new — Hot Cheetos with nacho cheese, for example — by popular demand. “That’s how the menu became the menu,” Gomez Estrada said. 

Now, every Friday, there’s a different special: birria tacos, pambazos, ham sandwiches, tacos ahogados, and esquites made with chicken feet.

“There’s a lot of people during this whole summer who became regulars, just because of the Friday specials,” Gomez Estrada said. “They didn’t know what they were getting but they knew it was going to be good.”

Fridays, El Chisme’s parking lot is “the place to be,” she said. “It’s like a tailgate. People would open up their trunks, get their seats out and just sit there.”

Gomez spends the morning and early afternoon doing prep work and loading the car while Estrada cooks at west side restaurant La Brioche True Food, where he’s worked since moving from the Mexican state of Morelos in 2002. When the restaurant closes for the day, he and Gomez rent its kitchen to cook food for El Chisme.

By now, the cart’s rainbow-colored umbrella has become iconic, Gomez Estrada said.

“Everybody I talk to, if I tell them my mom is on Raymond Road, they know exactly who I’m talking about.”

Reborn as a cooperative 

Last month, the business became a worker cooperative, a move Gomez thinks will help her expand and tap into additional community resources. 

She learned about the option when she called worker advocacy nonprofit Worker Justice Wisconsin about a workplace problem her brother was dealing with. The organization is known for helping workers recover stolen wages, file discrimination complaints and, more recently, form unions.

Gomez spoke to organizer Socorro Cortez. When the conversation turned to chisme, she mentioned that she had her own small business. Cortez asked if she’d ever considered making the family business a cooperative, which could allow them to receive grants and connect with other local cooperatives. 

“Really, we were already working as a cooperative without being one,” said Gomez, whose four kids had helped with the business since childhood. After learning more, she discussed the possibility with her family, and they decided that they had nothing to lose.

On a chilly October afternoon, El Chisme celebrated its rebirth as a cooperative. The family took a day off from their usual spot to sell on the lawn of the Madison Labor Temple, where Worker Justice Wisconsin has its offices. Beside the grill and jugs of aguas frescas sat a cake decorated with El Chisme’s signature umbrella. 

“It opens doors for us and has a lot of benefits,” said Gomez, who hopes to start operating additional food carts in different spots around town. “There aren’t that many cooperatives in Madison, so the few that exist are united and help each other.”

El Chisme is the first co-op organized through Worker Justice Wisconsin, which this summer assigned an organizer to run its cooperative incubator full time. Gomez and her four children run the cooperative and share the profits, while Estrada still works for the business but isn’t part of the cooperative.

Community cart

The family is currently saving money to finish refurbishing a food truck, which will let them extend their season. Currently, with just a tent to protect them from the cold, they stop serving outside around October, though they keep the business running year round by catering for weddings, graduations and other parties.

Back on Raymond Road, they still see many of the same customers they’ve had since the beginning, though the family has since moved to Verona. Kids who used to walk over with pocket change now come with families of their own.

“It’s really cool to see these kids grow up and my mom being one of their core memories,” Gomez Estrada said. 

Gomez agreed. “It’s lovely to see that after so many years, there are so many people who still follow us. We’ve made really nice friendships there.”

Meanwhile, the family is doing what it can to help others find similar success. People regularly ask Gomez and Estrada questions about starting their own businesses. These days, some ask about starting cooperatives too.

“A lot of vendors are like, ‘You have to figure it out (yourself) because I figured it out.’ That’s so sad to see the community not supporting each other,” said Gomez Estrada. Her parents give out their phone number to people who want pointers.

“They stop whatever they’re doing and (say), ‘Here’s my information, just text me and I’ll send you all the information that I have.’”