Hot Dog Johnny

 

They come on motorbikes and flatbeds, in Chevy Blazers and Ford Escorts. They kick up noise and gravel and talk with their mouths full.

They come for the food, yes -- "mustard onion pickle" on a hot dog -- but they come for something more.

Tradition, somebody calls it.

Taste, says another.

A pair of 12-foot-long wooden hot dogs propped up on the roof should be the tip-off. Hot Dog Johnny's is a hot dog stand not to be ignored.

"Oh, yeah," says Ann Richards, chopping pickles in the back room as "The Guiding Light" blares from an overhead TV. "It's a landmark. It's a fun place."

People have proposed here, she says, pickle juice running down her arm.

"A hot dog's a hot dog. The way it looks in a bun. But it's just the way it's cooked and it's the taste . . ."

Where Route 46 yawns across a lazy stretch of Buttzville, N.J. -- "I don't think there's 30 houses," Postmaster Joan Krause says -- Hot Dog Johnny's has laid claim to its own processed-food pre-eminence since 1944, since the Palm Sunday weekend when a coal miner named John Kovalsky first set a stand at the blinker light off Route 31.

Not much has changed.

The original stand -- a 2 by 4 on view out the back, a kind of monument to hot dogs past -- sits next to the plop and trickle of the Pequest River. It grew to its current proportions in 1946, after a gas station owner paid Johnny Kovalsky to move his stand a mile and a half down Route 46 (too many cars at the hot dog stand were blocking the poor guy's pumps).

Serendipity followed.

On a good, hot day, the line can be a dozen or more people thick -- folks with big bellies and big beards; old and young women sipping frosted mugs of birch beer at wooden picnic tables under Johnny's flat roof; families munching fries and hot dogs from inside their own cars ("Sorry, no mugs allowed in cars," a painted sign scolds drivers. "Mugs at tables only!"); kids whooping it up on Hot Dog Johnny's swing set ("Children swing at own risk," another sign reminds); old guys who remember Johnny from when they were 12 ("He liked to know where you came from. How far everything was," one offers between slurps of buttermilk).

It's a kind of hot dog heaven.

"Everybody knows Hot Dog Johnny's."

"Johnny was my father," the woman in the green and white striped apron is saying, picking at her teeth with the edge of a plastic straw.

Patsy Fotopoulos has been serving up hot dogs since she was 8 years old and had to stand on a soda crate beside her father to see over the counter. She's 62 now, "63 in October," and says hot dogs are in her blood.

"I can't say the past couple of years I don't get tired when we're busy busy busy, when it's our busy busy season," she says. "But I don't get tired enough to pack it up."

Patsy is a force, this woman: gray hair piled on top of her head; gravel voice; gruff; to the point.

"She's all business at work. All business," says Ann Richards, the pickle-slicing woman. "But to know her after work she's a great person."

Patsy's speaking to a short, heavy-set man now.

Business.

"No no no no," she scolds. "I gave you a check, for 2,000."

Later, she's standing over a hot dog grill, smiling at the customers.

The two faces of Patsy?

"I guess it's good to be that way," Ann laughs.

"Mustard onion pickle. That's what we call `everything.' "

Patsy Fotopoulos was halfway to a great time when she hit the bad spot.

That was when the road out front turned on her, Route 46, the road that brought customers to her father's stand and sustained her and kept her happy.

That was when her husband, George, was killed going home, when a tractor-trailer made an illegal U-turn on Route 46 up by the Rancho and . . .

Patsy doesn't talk about it much; she's busy busy busy with what has always been her life.

"I'm here seven days a week now at this time of year," she says, bragging, showing the old work ethic her father taught her.

Patsy and her husband, George, had taken over the stand in 1989 when her father, Johnny, had a massive heart attack.

Johnny still came in after that -- he'd cut the pickles for the rolls -- but his days of running a hot dog stand had ended.

Johnny died in 1995 -- it takes Patsy several minutes to remember the year -- and Patsy has been on her own since.

"If I didn't enjoy it I wouldn't be here 50-some years," she says. "I mean, it's a part of me. It's in my blood. It's just like raising a kid -- you know, having a kid born and watching it grow?"

Over to the right, in the room where the picnic tables are, John Kovalsky's portrait hangs on a wall.

"Hot Dog Johnny," it says underneath.

"That's why we still come. It's always the best birch beer and the hot dogs taste better because you're at Hot Dog Johnny's."

Pat Perrella sits smiling at an open-air table about 35 feet from Route 46. The constant rush of traffic -- trucks, cars, motorbikes -- sounds like a concert.

"I've been coming here a long time," Perrella says, stuffing the last of a hot dog in her mouth. "It hasn't changed much."

Perrella's been a regular since she was 17 years old -- she's a grandmother now -- and she likes the fact that nothing much changes here.

"I have a shirt since I was 17 from here. I have an old one," she says. "It looks almost like the ones they have now."

Roger Vreeland, at 62, comes every week, "just about," riding his motorcycle 10 miles for a hot dog or a cup of coffee.

"My grandfather used to bring us up here when I was 5, 6 years old," Vreeland says. "These people that are working here -- they weren't even born yet. Most of 'em, anyway."

Koray and Tara Girton, both in their 20s, have stopped at Hot Dog Johnny's for the first time.

"We were driving by. It just looks cool," Tara says, sipping a birch beer.

That's the way it goes at Hot Dog Johnny's -- customers, longtime or first-time, pack into the white-gravel parking lot, some from across the United States, some as far away as Japan.

And some famous.

"You can go out and look at the trophy cases outside. See who comes. You'll see who comes. There's a lot of famous people," Patsy Fotopoulos says.

Folks like?

"The cast from `The Guiding Light.' Bob Hope, years ago." (Hope sat in his limo; folks shook his hand.) "Christie Whitman. She was very, very nice. Art Carney. Very nice. Wait -- there's the ex-governor. Years ago. I forget his name . . ."

And the people keep coming.

"You can go to California, you can go to Florida," Patsy brags. "I had a niece that went to Europe to study and she ran into a couple people with Hot Dog Johnny T-shirts.

"A lot of times it's generation after generation."

"I don't know what they do but they do something good."

Ann Richards knows what Hot Dog Johnny's means to Patsy Fotopoulos.

"Her whole life."

Patsy and George never had any children. The hot dog stand was her only baby.

And Patsy Fotopoulos does not know what will become of her baby.

Who will take over when she is gone?

"No, I don't think in that direction," she says, swatting the words as if they were flies.
"No, I don't. I don't think that way. I don't waste my valuable time thinking about what's not here yet."

"No," she says later, "I wouldn't have started this on my own."

And still later: "I think it's changed somewhat now. The respect is gone. It's just a whole new ball game. Just like the whole world has changed. It's a heftier pace, just like everything else. It's not only hot dogs . . ."

"When I first met her," Ann Richards says, "I used to think she was straight and all business. I told her husband one day, I said to him, `Boy, she's really strict.' And he says, `Oh, no. You don't know her. That's at work. Everybody thinks that. But know her outside of work and she's a wonderful woman. She's loving and caring and kind and generous -- one of the nicest people you'll ever meet.'

"I never got the opportunity to tell him this, but he turned out to be right."

"I'll tell you, they got the best hot dogs. They are good."

"They say they like the hot dogs?" Patsy asks, a bit eager for the first time.

You tell her of the compliments.

"But you can't -- it's not -- you can't get all positive thoughts, you know? There's always negative. Am I right or am I wrong?

"That's life," she says.

But there are customers. Route 46 feeds this place the way Patsy's been feeding folks 50-some years. The dinner line is forming deep.

"So," she says, ready to get back to work, "is that it?"