The Chicago dog is born of hard times. During the 1930s, a nickel "Depression dog" with mustard, onions and relish, or one that was "dragged through the garden," the meat nearly obscured by lettuce, tomato and peppers, stretched both the coin and the stomach of Chicagoans. So maybe it's fitting that Chicago Dog House, a little cart serving the classic American street food, opened last week in the middle of a crisis.
Location, as they say, is everything. Chicago Dog House set up its prep kitchen and popped its yellow and red umbrella at Redwood Acres, where Humboldt County's mobile COVID-19 testing center and its alternative care site built by a prison work crew just two weeks ago are located. And, at least in its initial launch, events that would seem to conspire against the fledgling business are working out.
When Carrie Dadigan "semi-retired" from hairdressing, she and her fiancé Todd Nuse, who'd worked for 25 years at a Shelter Cove electrical company, wanted to find something different. She says she'd always daydreamed about having a hot dog stand for fun. "I remember there was a lady who had a hot dog cart in Old Town and there were always people lined up," she says. Looking around, they saw nobody else was doing a traditional Chicago dog and decided to take the leap.
They were hunting for a spot and working on their business paperwork in February and in the beginning of March found a tiny commercial kitchen spot in the former ticket booth at Redwood Acres, where neighbors Frankie's New York Bagels and the Boardroom were already thriving. The monthly rental came with a standing gig as hot dog vendor for the Redwood Acres Fair and the stock car races, with a spot on the patch of lawn just outside the kitchen.
But by the time the licensing paperwork was finished, COVID-19 had reached Humboldt County and the shelter-in-place order had forced restaurants to shut down or shift to curbside pickup. The streets of Old Town where once they'd dreamed of setting up shop were empty.
"I was like, what the heck do we do?" says Dadigan. "But what we were seeing was all the restaurants doing pickup and curbside delivery." Since Dadigan and Nuse were the owner operators and already shared a household, they didn't have to worry about distancing between employees, and nothing is more curbside than a hot dog stand. So they got the word out on social media and set up a pandemic-ready system. "We're doing social distancing, we're wearing masks and gloves, and staying 6 feet away from [customers]." Nuse handles the cash, while Dadigan puts together the orders — nobody but her touches so much as a mustard bottle.
"Then they decided to set up the testing facility," says Dadigan, who heard the news online that the county would be checking medical staff for COVID-19 at Redwood Acres starting April 28. Around the same time, construction began on of a 100-bed surge facility for treating less severe COVID-19 cases on the premises. But neither created the problems of proximity she'd feared — the testing area was roped off and off to the side from the stand's little island of grass, with plenty of signs to avoid confusion. In fact, it created foot traffic.
"People have shown up," says Dadigan, noting that obligatory trips to the testing facility have helped spread the word. "The fire department and it seems to me frontline workers, the nurses, the doctors, that type of thing. ... A few of [the medical staff being tested] have seen us and come and picked up a hot dog." In fact, on its official grand opening May 4, the stand sold out of hot dogs in around four hours.
It also turns out this might be the moment — as it was in the Great Depression — for a fast, cheap and filling hot dog that's been dragged through the garden, not to mention the stand being a balm to homesick Chicagoans. Dadigan chuckles over the phone recalling how one of the security guards for the testing facility stopped by. "He said, 'Man, I'm from Chicago and I haven't had one of those in like five years.'" She and Nuse made him one. Later he swung by for another.
"We order everything from Chicago," she says. "You can't just have any old relish or any old dog. It's very specific." That means snappy Vienna brand sausages (the original brand started up by Hungarian immigrant brothers in the late 1800s), poppyseed buns, sports peppers (like pepperoncinis but firmer and spicier), mustard, pickles, onions, tomato, celery salt and the Windy City's signature bright blue-green sweet relish. We're still in Humboldt, so there are vegan dogs along with traditional beef dogs and red hots.
A friend of hers who works at St. Joseph Hospital has asked if they'd set up there, so Nuse and Dadigan are working on getting permission. Dadigan says they'd like to park the cart there "for a day or two to just be there for those guys."
It's not lost on Dadigan how fortunate she and Nuse have been, and she says their hearts go out to owners of sit-down establishments who've had to either restructure their businesses or close entirely. If anything she's a bit stunned by the stand's luck amid shelter in place and the building of two facilities that might have scared customers away. "It worked in our favor," she says, "and it continues to in the most curious and amazing way."
arts and features editor and prefers she/her pronouns. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.