The outside temperature is 91 degrees Fahrenheit and Seti Martinez is standing, as he has been almost daily for 15 years, inside a metal box on wheels. That would be brutal enough, but that metal box also happens to contain a smoking-hot griddle and two bubbling deep fryers, causing the internal temps to climb well above 100 degrees. No joke: The upbeat sounds of Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" play over the sound system.
Martinez, a Marine vet wounded in Vietnam, dresses in a spotless white T-shirt, camouflage pants and dark shades. He's trim, tan and wears his silver hair closely cropped. Behind him, Marsha, his wife of 39 years, tries to keep cool by fluttering a small folding fan across her face.
In the face of such challenging physical conditions, conditions exacerbated by his disability and long hours on his feet, Martinez soldiers on. "I just concentrate on what I'm doing," he says.
What he's doing is trying to get established in his first new spot in a decade. For the past 10 years, everybody knew that Martinez and his Polish Boy truck would be parked outside Dean Supply, a restaurant supply warehouse near Cleveland's produce terminal. But that relationship went south recently, forcing Martinez to release the parking brake and move on.
"We've always had a long line wherever we go, but now we have to get established at this new spot," he says.
That new spot is on Lorain Avenue near West 42nd Street, a spot selected because it meets his requirements of a "good spot." There's foot traffic, car traffic, and plenty of homes and businesses in the area. Seti's Polish Boys is on Facebook, but Martinez admits to being lax about updating the page. He says that after cooking all day, cleaning the rig, shopping for and restocking ingredients, social media is easily overlooked. "I know I need to let the people know where I'm gonna be," he says.
Martinez first got the idea to do a food truck after seeing one in a catalog at Dean. That was way back in 2001, a decade before the food truck revolution would invade Cleveland.
"There were no food trucks around and I had no idea about them," he says.
Martinez worked with the V.A. to secure a bank loan, teaching himself how to use a computer at the library to draft a business plan and scour the marketplace for a rig. When he took possession six months later, he said Polish Boys were an obvious choice.
"All the barbecue joints were doing Polish Boys because they had the slaw, the barbecue sauce, the sausages," he says.
Martinez starts with quarter-pound, all-beef hot dogs, which get a quick dunk in the deep fryer before a hot roll on the griddle. The tube steak is topped with slaw, fries and a homemade barbecue sauce.
"You have to know how to work the grill, which is not that hard, but it has to be done the right way," Martinez says between customers. "It's not just throwing dogs on the grill; you have to know when they're right because everything has to come out the same way all the time — nothing overcooked or undercooked, over-salted or under-salted. And you have to work the window."
Martinez, who splits his time between his weekday perch and weekend events like festivals, weddings, graduation bashes and bar mitzvahs, says his dream is to open a small restaurant.
"I worked in some of the best restaurants in Cleveland, so I know how to handle myself," he says.
Does Martinez eat Polish Boys?
"You know what, nobody ever asked me that! I eat chili dogs, mostly."