It used to be that Magdi S. Mousa's alarm would go off most mornings around 4:30. A quick shower, and he would bolt out the door and rush to a back-alley garage to stock his hot dog stand with the essentials to ply his trade on one of Washington's busy street corners.

Two years later, Mousa, 30, a native of Egypt, is living the good life. He sleeps until 8 a.m. or later, and takes his time heading downtown. His job today is supervising the five hot dog stands he owns. It hasn't been easy, he said, but such success is possible.

More typical, however, are the vendors who arrive in the wee hours at one of the nine crowded underground loading garages scattered around the downtown area to pick up their carts from among the dozens stored side by side in this dank and dreary underworld.

Most pull up in old, beat-up cars; some in taxicabs they drive for pay by night. Most garages charge about $50 a month for storing and loading the carts.

The garages are convenient, because the vendors also can purchase right there, at wholesale prices from a central distributor, anything and everything they need to operate their stands, including miniature bottles of dishwashing liquid, pretzels and chips, soft drinks and candy, and, of course, hot dogs and half smokes and all the trimmings.

For their fee, workers in the garages also provide cleaning and sanitizing services to meet city regulations. They also help the drivers maneuver their carts out and onto their cars.

"When they come, they are tired. We help them finish the job," said Mushfiqur R. Khan, 40, who along with his wife operates the Capitol Vending garage tucked inside an alley at 14th and R streets NW.

It is a little-known world where about 90 percent of the clients are foreign-born, where dialects from all over Africa, Latin America and the Middle East mix and resonate during the noisy loading and unloading hours.

Immigrants "basically have the money to come up with the $1,106 license fee and the additional money to buy a hot dog cart .. . due to family cooperation among the foreigners and the money they had before they got here," said James Shabazz, chairman of Organized Vendors for Economic Cooperation, a trade organization for vendors, taxicab drivers and other small businesses.

"A hot dog cart can cost $10,000, and that's just the basic cart."

The attraction is usually a strong desire to be independent. Before taxes, hot dog vendors typically clear about $12,000 to $15,000 a year, according to the vendor trade group.

"I like it, but it's hard," said Yeshu Woldemicael, a native of Ethiopia who operates a hot dog stand at 18th and L streets NW. "I want to go back to my country. {Here it} is difficult to live."

That's why some try to use their stands as Mousa did, as a springboard to larger entrepreneurial operations.

Tesfazion Habties, also a native of Ethiopia, parlayed his hot dog stand at 15th and I streets NW into Habties Food Vending, a loading garage for other vendors. And Mousa is scouting the area around 14th and U streets NW for a place to open his own carryout.

"It gives you experience to start selling food. You start one, and after that you have experience and you change businesses," he said. "This business is really not bad."