Hootie’s Hotdogs: street food for thought

by Christian Bryant

Make me one with everything, except sauerkraut and relish, that is. (photo by Christian Bryant)

It`s a cold Friday night in downtown Greensboro and besides the thud of blaring music from clubs and bars, the place is dead. Marquees and streetlights illuminate Elm Street as a few cars drive by at a funereal pace, eyes peering over half-cracked windows as both drivers and passengers scout the area for signs of life.

Bouncers take smoke breaks presumably because of the low degree of both temperature and activity. Directly to the right of Allure Nightlife rests a two-wheeled hot dog stand under a weather-beaten, yellow and white patio-styled umbrella with wind vents. The umbrella is a downtown staple and so is the owner and operator, Hootie.

A young man with his arms tucked into his T-shirt flanks left from his group and approaches Hootie to inquire about product.

“You ain’t got no veggie dogs?” Hootie shakes his head politely. The young man begins to complain as he continues to move downstream.

“I’m numb. I don’t pay attention to them folks,” replies Hootie with a half smirk on his face.

He looks up and down the relatively empty sidewalk with a bit of disappointment and calls it like he sees it.

“It’s soft tonight,” he says. “It’s kind of par for the course.” Hootie, AKA Vincent, or Vinny as some of the passersby call him, owns and operates one of the most recognizable hot dog stands in the city, Hootie’s Hot Dogs.

Hootie’s menu is relatively simple: your choice of a hot dog or sausage on a white bun, ketchup, slaw, relish, sauerkraut, regular or spicy mustard, sautéed onions and occasionally cheese. I go with the sausage, everything except for relish and sauerkraut. There’s nothing fancy to it, but if you stop through here any time after midnight, you know exactly what you’re getting: a good, ol’ fashioned dog as plain or as loaded as you like.

The hot dogs always hit the spot, but the story behind them makes the visit to Hootie’s worthwhile. He’s on his seventh year working his stand, but his wealth of culinary and food-service knowledge coupled with his business savvy reaches far beyond just buns and franks.

Hootie studied culinary arts in Charlotte before leaving for a job offer. His food-service background in Greensboro includes employment at popular eateries like Montego Bay, Bert’s Seafood Grill on Spring Garden Road, Alfredo’s of Rome, Chop House on Pisgah Church Road, Tex and Shirley’s in Friendly Shopping Center and chef duties at Greensboro Day School, to name a few. He says he was there when a lot of these businesses first opened and can tell about many of the owners that still run those same restaurants.

“I have a large background,” Hootie says humbly. “I was a chef, a server and a consultant.”

He divulges that he kept a journal on his patrons. often writing flattering compliments, to help him better serve them on their following visits.

“It gave me leverage,” Hootie says. “I would let my patrons read my comments and I would offer to specialize meals for them.”

Hootie also offers up some of his working knowledge of the restaurant business: “The customer can never know you’re short-staffed,” he says. Anybody who has worked in a restaurant knows that is a cardinal sin when trying to maintain a fine-dining experience.

A change of pace came after his stint at George’s on Church. Hootie and business partner Cleveland, who has since defected West, ran a restaurant that catered to kids until payments to remain in the building got too high.

“Rent went up, so I told them kiss my ass,” Hootie says. This brings us to the here and now, with Hootie at the helm of a lessthan-glamorous, self-run hot dog stand. Tonight is slow, and although groups of potential patrons congregate every 15 minutes or so, only one or two people out of each peel off to buy hot dogs. Even so, Hootie still has visitors and regular patrons that will stop by to talk about a number of subjects ranging from women to business to the flavorful dynamics and social scene of downtown Greensboro. Even police officers will stop to converse and talk about the unruly clubgoers. Some of his visitors engage him and use him as a sounding board. knowing they’ll receive straight-up commentary with no chaser.

With an extensive background in food and a knack for business, I ask Hootie why he has relegated himself to a small hotdog stand. He responds simply by saying, “Freedom…. I can do what I want, when I want. I can take time off… I’m self-employed.”

Right before Hootie wraps up for the evening, a young lady tiptoes her way to the stand. Shoeless, glassy-eyed, and wearing clothes inappropriate for the weather, she greets Hootie and begins to give her order.

He smiles and gladly obliges, not forgetting to offer her napkins and sanitizer.

She devours a portion of her meal and says, “The hot dog is better than any of this stuff downtown.”