Wiener takes all in downtown Greensboro
When Marine Corps veteran Grady Riddle returned from the war-torn Middle East in 2006, he never dreamed the fight of his life would take place years later on American soil. Well, that may or may not be entirely true but I couldn’t resist the joke.
Riddle began selling hot dogs back in 1998 while still in high school, assisting Katie Darnley who, for more than a quarter century, was downtown Greensboro’s Hot Dog Lady positioned faithfully in the courtyard of the city’s Governmental Center and the J. Douglas Galyon Depot. It was a rare morning, no matter the weather, that Darnley wasn’t at-the-ready with a hot dog and a smile.
As for Grady, 20 years slinging street meat is quite an achievement, interrupted only by his service overseas during the height of George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” He took over the Downtown Dogs business last year. I confess to being a regular customer, enjoying some of his firm wieners and soft buns.
He made only one change after Darnley retired. Recognizing he was on the front lines where extreme poverty meets tremendous prosperity, Grady instituted a pay-it-forward program to feed the hungry when they indicated they had no cash. He subsequently gave away hundreds of meals even, “Finding a location where there were homeless people and just feeding them all at once.”
This past May, Grady was missing in action for some three weeks, beleaguered with health problems and mechanical breakdowns.
“I was in the hospital [some of that time],” he explained. “I recently found out I have diabetes.”
Once he was back up and running, Grady discovered another hot dog vendor working his spot. You know what they say, “The early bird gets the worm.” To defend his position, Grady was determined to be first on-site, arriving as early as 8 a.m. You might not be surprised how few hot dogs a person can sell at that hour.
Despite a confluence of foot traffic between the courthouse and the probation office, that corner of the world isn’t lucrative enough to support dueling vendors. This led to Grady firing off some bitter salvos on social media as he watched his business fade away. Last Friday, 20 years to the month after selling his first red hots downtown, he left the field of battle with honor.
“I’m not happy about it at all, I had a plan and now I’m in debt,” he said. “But I’m going to be positive.”
When I attempted to interview one of the proprietors of the new hot dog stand, Krystal, she asked if I was Facebook friends with “Mr. Riddle.”
I informed her that indeed, “I’ve been friends with Grady for about a decade.”
She replied skeptically but pleasantly, “He’s said some pretty nasty things about us on Facebook, I’d rather you talk with my husband.” This ended our conversation. Fair enough.
In contrast to Grady’s dogs, the folks who now inhabit Governmental Square around the noon hour, Maho’s Bistro, split their frankfurters lengthwise to grill them on both sides while simultaneously toasting the buns. It’s a better product, in my opinion. For fanatical wiener eaters, they even offer a 33-inch hot dog.
A regular hot dog, chips, and a Coke will run you $4, a dollar more than Grady was charging but still one of the best lunchtime bargains out there for downtowners.
Krystal seemed very nice and I genuinely hope they prove successful, and that Riddle finds his next chapter rewarding, one that affords more opportunities to do what he really loves, skydiving.
As for those chrome hot dog stands that had become so familiar for over 25 years? They’ll likely go back to Darnley, who is enjoying life in Florida where she can be close to her grandkids.
Can Maho’s Bistro cut the mustard over the long haul? Time will tell. As for Grady, what he’ll miss most, “Are the people, my regulars. And working outside is awesome.”
An artistic member of ‘The New York Yankees of Motion Picture Advertising,’ Billy Ingram is the author of 5 books including Hamburger², a collection of stories (mostly) about Greensboro’s colorful past.