On Monday, a day when they thought they would be selling scads of barbecue to hungry patrons at Saratoga Race Course, Brandon Snooks and Andrea Loguidice, owners of the Wandering Dago food truck, were at home sorting through restaurant equipment.
The couple purchased about $10,000 worth of new supplies in anticipation of feeding between 400 and 500 people per day during the summer meet, but were abruptly told to leave the race course Friday due to what New York Racing Association spokesman Eric Wing said were complaints about their truck’s name.
The term “dago” has historically been used as a derogatory term for Italians.
Snooks, who is of Italian decent, explained the rational for the truck’s name: “We get paid as the day goes.”
The name is sentimental to him.
“I was the little dago. That’s what my grandma called me,” he said.
In the local Italian-American community, opinions vary about the term “dago.”
Vito Spinelli of Scotia found the name of the food truck so offensive he wrote a letter to the editor after seeing it mentioned in an April 28 Daily Gazette article.
“That name just bounced right off that page and hit me right between the eyes. I thought it was gone, it was forgotten,” the 86-year-old said in a phone interview.
Spinelli’s father was an Italian immigrant.
“His name was Francesco and when he was on the job working in construction or anything he could get as an immigrant, they never said, ‘Hey, Francesco. [They said,] hey, dago,’ ” Spinelli explained. “We have a long history in our family of my father being humiliated by this term — not only him, but all of his friends, and being immigrants, they had no way of fighting back.”
Former Schenectady Mayor Frank Duci said he was familiar with the word and its negative connotations.
“I’ve been called a dago, when I was a teenager, but that was like 70 years ago,” he commented. “Years ago we thought that was slander, but not today.”
Although he acknowledged that the word might not carry the same nasty punch it did years ago, he said he’d rather not see it on the food truck.
“I don’t think it does the Italian heritage any good to have that on there,” he commented.
Rotterdam restaurateur Peter Guidarelli, 45, said he was not offended by the truck’s name.
“I can understand the older Italian generation being offended by it and I think the younger Italians don’t have that grasp of the offensiveness that it carries through the older generation, for instance, when my great-grandfather came off the boat from Italy,” the former Schenectady City Council member and county legislator commented.
He said he interpreted the truck’s name as a creative marketing technique.
“As somebody who is also in the restaurant business, if he’s got good food, I don’t think what the name of it is [is an issue]. I think he’ll probably sell his product,” he said.
Italian immigrant Anna Di Cocco, who owns La Gioia Deli in Schenectady, said she had never heard the term “dago.”
“I’ve been called many names, but that I have never been called,” she said.
Her 26-year-old daughter, Lisa Muscedere, was not familiar with the term either.
Encounter at track
In an attempt to salvage the Wandering Dago’s position at the race course, Snooks said he asked the NYRA official who contacted him about leaving the race course if they could cover up the word “dago” on the truck and still have a chance to stay.
“He said, ‘Absolutely not. You guys have to have your truck out.’ He basically said, ‘You guys can move it or we’ll tow it,’ ” Snooks recounted.
He declined to give the official’s name.
Snooks said the Wandering Dago has a contract to sell food at the race couse that requires either party to give 30 days written notice to terminate it. Despite that, he said he and Loguidice were given just three hours to vacate the race course.
“We’re not mad at the track or NYRA or Centerplate, the people we have a contract with,” he was quick to point out. “We’re not getting ready to march on Saratoga.”
He said he and Loguidice have reached out to NYRA in hopes that they can work through the issue, and also said he didn’t believe NYRA was responsible for the eviction, but rather someone “way up the food chain,” possibly a state official.
Wing said he didn’t believe NYRA had conducted any further internal discussions on the subject during the past day or two.
Even if a name change would solve the issue, it would cost between $10,000 and $12,000 just to redo the logos on the food truck, and it’s not really the route Snooks said he wants to take.
“We get tons and tons of compliments on our name — how funny it is, how catchy it is. Tons of Italian people write us. We have people writing to us from other states.”
Since the story about their eviction from the race course broke, the couple have also gotten calls from parties concerned that their First Amendment rights are being trampled on.
This isn’t the first time the food truck has been excluded because of its name. It was denied a food vendor license at the Empire State Plaza, which is run by the state’s Office of General Services.
OGS also oversees the Saratoga Race Course.
“The last thing we want to do is get into a battle with the state of New York, but I do think it’s getting pretty close to that point where we have to say, ‘What did we do wrong?’ ” Snooks said. “We went through the Department of Corporations and got licensed, we’re cool with the IRS and all of the federal stuff, but yet people are telling us we can’t work somewhere because of our name. What’s next? We’re going to have to sit at the back of the bus?”