Vicki Hooks Green selling homemade chili and coney dogs out of Big Ma’s Coney Cart. Credit: Courtney Wise Randolph
Vicki Hooks Green is a veteran teacher with such a passion for the profession that she’s determined to retire before she gets tired. After 23 years of teaching English at Detroit’s Cass Tech, she’s just seven years away from her self-imposed retirement date. The only problem: she can’t afford to meet the deadline. There isn’t enough money in her retirement fund. To ensure that she’ll have enough saved in the next few years, this summer Hooks Green re-hired herself for the first job she ever had as a teenager—selling coney dogs—and launched Big Ma’s Coney Cart.
“I absolutely love teaching with a passion,” Hooks Green said. “But this is the thing—I don’t want to do like so many people have done, where they couldn’t wait to retire…that’s a disservice to those kids who still have to be in your classroom.”
Miserable teachers beget miserable students. Hooks Green knows it firsthand. She dropped out of high school, she said, because her teachers all seemed to dislike both their job and kids. After earning a high school equivalency diploma at age 18 and starting a family of her own, she earned various professional certificates that enabled her to earn a decent salary. There was bartending for a while, later computer programming and she even studied to be a court reporter. Ultimately though, she decided that what she really ought to do was become the teacher she always wished she’d had.
Hooks Green was a single mom of two and in her 30s when she enrolled in Marygrove College for teaching in the mid-‘90s. Her entire college education—bachelor’s and master’s degrees—was funded with student loans, making saving on a teacher’s lackluster salary even more of a challenge.
“That’s another reason why I had to do something else to supplement my income,” she said. “I’ll be paying student loans until I die—and maybe after.”
So, she started brainstorming. Hooks Green figured that while in 23 years she’s never taught summer school, it was time she got a summer job. She needed something that wouldn’t cause her to burn out, where she’d also have full control of the hours. That’s when the idea for the coney cart came to her. “I started out working in restaurants, specifically Coney Islands, and I thought it would be a cool thing to have a hotdog cart to create my own summer job and save toward retirement,” she said.
Back in April, Hooks Green created a GoFundMe campaign to announce her plan and ask for help. She set a goal of raising $10,000 in 30 days to acquire the cart, all necessary summer supplies—propane, paper goods, food supplies—and hire part-time help. In the first week she surpassed her goal and was able to open Big Ma’s Coney Cart in early June. Since then, she’s been the primary food vendor at “A Lot of Studio,” Khary Frazier’s weekly public podcast recording and block party hosted on Detroit’s westside. She’s had plenty of repeat customers—including current and former students. The secret is in the chili, she said.
“Anybody can do hot dogs, right? You can go to the store and get buns, hot dogs, mustard, onions, chips and all that stuff,” Hooks Green said. “What you can’t get,” she continued, “is the chili that I make.” She offers two versions of her homemade chili on Big Ma’s Coney Cart—halal beef and vegan. She also carries halal beef and vegan hot dogs.
Both versions of chili include her special blend of 13 spices and, she proclaimed, “it is absolutely delicious!” More importantly, she added with a pointed glance, “It doesn’t do that stuff to you that traditional Coney Island chili does.”
While customers enjoy her homemade chili and Lemon Dreams—a rich, dense, cupcake dessert that she also makes from scratch—that’s not the only reason people make a beeline to her cart week after week. Her sister and fellow educator, Mayowa Lisa Reynolds, said their loyalty is because of Green’s sincerity, positivity and the way she shows up. “She’s an excellent teacher—a teacher’s teacher. Anybody who takes her class loves her forever.”
The carloads of former students who drive up and head straight to her cart every week are evidence of that.
“She’s always looking out for us, so we want to look out for her and give her a hand,” said Mikayla Manthiram, a rising junior at Michigan State.
Other former students shared that Hooks Green not only inspired them to appreciate her English class, but also demonstrated she cared as much about their well-being as she did their academic success.
Starting a food business hasn’t been all roses. While Hooks Green said she’s on track toward her retirement goal with coney dog sales this summer, she almost quit as soon as she started. Running a food cart comes with a hefty learning curve. Just a couple of weeks after finally getting the cart set up, Hooks Green decided to vend one weekend at a local art fair. While driving to the venue, the coney cart detached from her car and fell over. It even banged her knee up a bit. She was exhausted, discouraged and ready to give up.
“But, as we finished the event,” she said, “a butterfly came and sat on a little spot of chili on my cart. Now, look at my cart and the sign and you’ll see—I just love butterflies. So this butterfly happened to come to sit on my chili on my cart, and I got a picture of it. That was just amazing to me. It was almost like a sign that everything’s gonna be alright, so let me get up.”
You’ve got a couple weeks left to sample the coney dogs and Hooks Green’s chili straight from the cart. (Find her at the A Lot of Studio events — the next one is on Thursday, Aug. 26.) Once her school year gets going next month, she plans to park “CC” until next summer. But be on the lookout for where you can find her chili throughout the year. She’s working on plans to make it available at local grocers. Check back for updates on the Big Ma’s Coney Cart site and Facebook page.