July is National Hot Dog Month and today is National Hot Dog Day. Amid more enlightened concerns regarding health issues for the customer and the product (and what it is made out of according to the film “The Great Outdoors”), a hot dog is still a staple in America’s diet. It is basically a meal that anyone can get for a couple of dollars that can sustain them for a day.
In Roselle Park, Dee’s Hot Dogs on Faitoute Avenue across the street from Aldene Park has been a well-known name for 50 years. And for the record, it has always been named Dee’s Hot Dogs. Call it fate but in May of 1965, Delores ‘Dee’ Antonucci’s father, John Ranieri, bought a hot dog cart from a man who, himself, had named it after his mother, Dee. After retiring from his business, John opened up a hot dog stand in Roselle Park. Dee started working part-time to help out after she had her son. When her father retired in 1973, she took it over.
From that cart to a three-wheeled scooter to two step-in vans to the recognizable staple that Dee’s Hot Dog truck has become, Dee has been feeding generations of Roselle Park residents. Throughout the decades and in all seasons, Dee’s Hot Dogs has served up hot dogs, ketchup, mustard, sauerkraut, chili, relish, cooked onions, and hot peppers, all for about two bucks. Dee’s workweek fluctuates between five and six days a week, but that decision is up to her. As she puts it, “I’m my own boss. Plus, I like my customers. I like to be around people. I just like what I’m doing.”
Starting in the morning to get everything ready, Dee opens up at around 11 in the morning and goes through until 4 in the afternoon or until the hot dogs run out, which ever comes first. She says of her workday, “When the hot dogs are gone, I’m done.”
Not to say that that has not stopped people from following her home, a few blocks away, asking for hot dogs. She has even made hot dogs on her driveway on the rare occasion when a loyal customer caught her as she was pulling in to call it a day.
But there have been other stories. From the man who showed up one day and ordered 100 hot dogs, and got them. She has made hot dogs for statesmen, mayors, councilmen, councilwomen, freeholders, politicians, teachers, students, construction workers, plumbers, truck drivers, police officers, professionals, lawyers, doctors, nurses, and even – sometimes – those who could not even pay for a meal. Dee has said that over the years there have been quite a few people who have had not enough to pay for a hot dog who have been given one ‘on the house’.
She recounted how once, “This one guy came here and says to me ‘I have no money but I’m hungry’. So I said ‘Okay what do you want?’ and I gave it to him. At that time he said ‘One day, I’ll come back and pay you’ but I said do me a favor, pass it on to the next person. Do you know that after about five or six years later, he came back, paid me, and thanked me for what I did for him? Apparently he won the lottery or something and he said to me he never forgot what I did for him because he said ‘I was down and out and you boosted me up’ and he always passes it on to others, remembering what I did for him.”
Dee has seen her share of all types come across her counter. She has seen her customers grow up on her hot dogs and she has seen her customer’s children grow up over the years on her food. She has doled out advice from those who come to ask for it and she, in turn, has asked advice from her clients on everything from how to fix trouble with her home sink to finding answers for one client by asking another later on in the day. But no matter what, one rule Dee has for herself is that no one leaves her truck without a smile.
“You might come here serious or upset,” she said, “But in taking care of their order I’ll say something and then I’ll see them smile, even if it’s a little one.”
For Dee, it is not just about feeding the body but also feeding the soul – which is also important. She says that you can get food anywhere but the company that is shared, even in just placing an order, brings people together. She commented about those moments, “You look forward to that. I know I do and by how my customers are loyal, I think they look forward to it, too.”
And what a loyal customer base she has. Dee has had adults come around for a hot dog and tell her how they moved away but stopped by specifically to let her know about how much they loved to come see her and get hot dogs when they were kids. On those occasions when she has taken vacation, she has gotten phone calls asking her if she was open or if she was all right. She was even, one time while vacationing in Florida, waiting on a line for something and the person behind her tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Aren’t you Dee?”
Even at church she has heard little children whisper, “Ma, there’s the Hot Dog Lady.”
Dee loves it when she gets recognized as ‘the Hot Dog Lady’. In May of this year, the municipality even recognized her for the 50 years that Dee’s Hot Dogs has been in Roselle Park. She and her truck have been at private events, baseball games, soccer games, townwide events, and fundraisers, but Faitoute is home base.
“It’s been very interesting. Very nice people. I’ve learned that everyone is unique and you can learn something from everybody,” Dee said as another customer approached her window. As if to prove her point, the gentleman asked for a hot dog with sauerkraut and mustard, but he specifically asked if Dee could put the sauerkraut on first, then the mustard, then the hot dog. He explained to her that way none of the sauerkraut falls out.
And with that, Dee was back to work, serving up and asking how people’s days were going and flipping the metal lids like a maestro serving up hot dogs.
Full disclosure, my usual is one chili dog and one with relish, sauerkraut, ketchup, mustard, and hot peppers.