Spring, With Relish

Because it was spring, I was craving the sort of home-improvement supplies you need at this time of renewal, when outdoor projects seem not only possible, but inevitable. I was considering scraping and sanding decks, cobbling together outdoor furniture, laying down swaths of concrete, maybe even wielding a tube of caulk (despite all the silly-putty-like evidence of the last time I'd had that idea). In line at the big-box hardware store, faces around me shone with the same sort of hope. A lumberyard in springtime is a charmed place.

But the real charm, I soon realized, emanated from a very specific space in that place: a hotdog stand in front of the store. The steam table emitted an aroma that worked subtly on our minds, more straightforwardly on our stomachs. Abandoning my spot in line, I ran outside to buy a dog.

A young, blond, St. Pauli-like girl was dispensing brats and Polish sausages. Both her appearance and her offerings were so enticing that I had to ask: She confirmed that she'd received a number of marriage proposals while on the job. Not only that, she said, but she belonged to a ring of beautiful young hotdog girls who manned stands at various branches of the big-box store. She'd tell me all about it if her boss agreed.

"Thanks, but no thanks," her boss told me over the phone the next day. "People in our business have nothing to say to people in your business. In the past, it hasn't worked out. I'm not interested in the publicity, honey."

Publicity, honey? Did his attitude hint of hotdog scandal? Or did he truly believe that there was no way hotdogs and journalists could happily co-exist? Carefully avoiding the stores controlled by the St. Pauli cartel -- I'd been warned, after all -- I began researching the competition.

"No, no hotdog cart," a cagey HomeBase manager told me. "We make them go two doors down. They set up in front of the furniture store."

"Nope, nope, nope, sure don't have one," said Hugh M. Woods -- or his spokesman. "No hotdog man. Not yet. Not that I know of. Don't know when we'll get one."

"Hotdog person? Why would we have a hotdog person?" barked the Ace Hardware manager.

"Isn't it a springtime tradition?" I asked. "Where else can busy contractors eat?"

"Who cares?"

A good question -- and I found the answer at Lowe's, which occupies the old Eagle Hardware space at I-70 and Wadsworth Boulevard. "We absolutely do have a hotdog guy," said assistant manager Jeff Winegard. "And he's so good that a lot of contractors come by here just to eat. I've eaten almost everything he's got, because as you walk out of the store, there he is. And you get a good smell and you're, like, 'I'm hungry,' and it doesn't matter what time it is. You get yourself a breakfast burrito or a Danish or a snack cake. Or a hotdog, of course."

I wasn't wearing a watch, but somehow I knew it was lunchtime.

Jeordon Little's hotdog cart is strategically located between two sets of glass doors leading from the Lowe's cash registers to the exit -- not to be confused with the contractors' entrance.

"They actually have free coffee over there in the morning," Little tells me, "but I've never tried it. I'm not sure I would. You get more bang for your buck with cappuccino, is my feeling."

Because the St. Pauli girl had taken all of her beverages from a Styrofoam cooler, I'm stunned to discover that Little's operation includes not only an elaborate coffee machine, but a soda fountain, a lighted hot-pretzel display case and a Good Humor chest stocking only the finest Good Humor product -- the Strawberry Shortcake bar -- in addition to offerings from Ben, Jerry and the original Klondike corporation. His steam table gleams stainlessly. In the light streaming in through the plate-glass windows, this hotdog stand feels like a sanctuary -- a Woody's Chicago Style shrine.

"But this is just what you get when you buy the franchise," Little explains. "Woody's are all over Hawaii, in the airports and Pearl Harbor and all that. I bought in three years ago, got the training, got the place here at Lowe's, and learned how to keep my dogs hot and my drinks cold. It's pretty difficult to screw up. Simple devices, simple tools."

In going with Woody's, Little made a commitment to the Chicago -- as opposed to New York -- school of hotdog construction and consumption. "I didn't know any of this at first," he admits, "but with the Chicago hotdog, you have to have everything born and raised in Chicago -- the buns from the St. Mary-Anne Bakery, the artificially bright green relish, the celery salt, the kraut, the kosher pickles. The New Yorkers rip on Chicago style, the people from Chicago rip on Sabrett's. The New Yorkers get a little hard that I don't have a pickle spear and chopped tomato, but I made my choice."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff