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Archive for Monday, June 22, 2009

Hot dog vendor enhances downtown flavor

Sun Dog customers relish unique sidewalk dining option

May Bernofsky, left, pays for a hot dog at the Sun Dog food cart at Ninth and Massachusetts streets. Proprietor Craig Nowatzke has run the stand for five years.

May Bernofsky, left, pays for a hot dog at the Sun Dog food cart at Ninth and Massachusetts streets. Proprietor Craig Nowatzke has run the stand for five years.

June 22, 2009

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On this morning, at least, the corner of Ninth and Mass. seemed to be a magnet for simplicity.

The sweet smell of hickory smoke filled the air for barbecue to be served over the weekend. A jug of sun tea brewed on the sidewalk in front of an attorney’s office. The man known as Toad, the unofficial gopher of downtown, played a game of who could bark the longest with a dog in a locked car.

And it was a Thursday, which meant in a few minutes the corner would be planted with pure nostalgia — a stainless steel hot dog cart, complete with colorful canopies and a colorful vendor.

Except ...

“This isn’t simple,” Craig Nowatzke said firmly. “This is a lot of work.”

You’ll have to excuse Nowatzke for interrupting our little scene. The view of simple is much different from where he sits.

•••

A little after 10:30 a.m., Nowatzke pulls his small station wagon right up on the sidewalk, startling the man on the nearby bench who sat in the fleeting shade of the Third Planet Imports building.

Soon, Nowatzke has the 1,000-pound cart unhooked and pushed into place. He starts fiddling with a knob and a propane tank.

“You always try to get the fires going first,” said Nowatzke, 40.

Then, there’s the unloading of more than a half-dozen coolers, containers and condiments, until he finally reaches the piece that he’s been dreading.

It’s a shaved ice machine — an odd contraption that looks part corkscrew, part wood plane and is encased in a piece of round glass that just looks expensive.

“This is my arch nemesis. It’s 65 pounds and all awkward,” Nowatzke said as he balanced it on a plastic folding table.

He does all this from his wheelchair.

•••

Nowatzke had a plan: He would do this hot dog gig for five years. This is his fifth year, and he admits it looks like he’s heading for a sixth.

Ask him now what it will take to get him out of the business, and he retorts: “A good idea.”

But don’t be too fooled by it. Nowatzke loves the freedom — a workday defined by hours that end in ‘ish,’ such as 11ish to 4ish — and the business isn’t bad either. He’s open Wednesdays through Saturdays, usually from April to Christmas. On most days, he’ll sell between 50 to 100 hot dogs, sausages, links and — swallow hard, Tofurkey products — at anywhere from $2 to $4 a pop.

Yeah, it’s done all right. In some ways, better than the previous life where a master’s in rehabilitation therapy left him trapped in a cubicle. The hot dog stand has helped bring a new bride, a house that he owns in North Lawrence, and a daily dose of conversation. The conversation can be about anything.

He remembers the day he spent talking for hours with a 14-year-old girl who was waiting for her mother at the corner of Ninth and Mass. She hadn’t seen her mother in eight months.

“I just kept thinking, ‘I hope she shows up,’” Nowatzke said. She did.

Then there was the day that a good part of the afternoon was spent talking about the guy who was walking up and down Massachusetts in a skin-tight, full-body rainbow suit, topped off with a hat with a plume. Somehow it was an encouraging, if not aesthetic, sign to Nowatzke.

“I know some stores have come and gone, but downtown still has the feel — nutty people and people who accept them,” Nowatzke said.

On this day — no matter what the headlines said in the newspaper — the big story downtown was that Craig Nowatzke got a haircut. No more long locks. The comments started about 10:30 with a friendly yell from a passing truck: “Nice haircut, hippie.” At least a half-dozen comments followed, including: “Heaven forbid, not a job interview.”

No, not yet. For a while longer, Nowatzke wheels around in roughly a 3-foot by 5-foot area. He watches ice dwindle in the shaved ice machine — six blocks a day “whether you sell it or watch it melt.” He deftly handles a pair of tongs — bare hands never touch the food. And today, much to his displeasure, he battles the wind that batters the umbrellas that serve as the only shield from a 96-degree day.

“I can only do this for so much longer,” he says as he places a bun in a wrapper.

“No, you got to do this forever,” says the man waiting for his dog.

•••

Nowatzke was 18 years old and was on Kansas University’s Wescoe Beach blowing a large soap bubble. The scene caught the eye of a University Daily Kansan photographer.

As it happens, it would be the last photograph ever taken of Nowatzke on his own two feet. Two hours after the photo was taken, Nowatzke would never walk again.

He suffered a spinal cord stroke. He collapsed, began spitting up blood, and then took a ride on an air ambulance.

No cause was ever determined.

“It was weird,” said Nowatzke, who has no movement below his mid-chest, and has developed tendinitis in his hands to the point that one hand is about 50 percent larger than the other.

“It still is weird.”

He ended up at a top-notch neurosurgery hospital in Bethesda, Md. Doctors did all types of complicated tests but after three months there, the diagnosis was — there’s that word again — simple.

“An inch and a half above the nipple, I have dead cells on the spinal cord,” Nowatzke said. “That’s that.”

•••

There are definitely regulars at the Sun Dog hot dog stand. Some just hand Nowatzke a dollar and open the fridge up themselves to get a soda. There are others who Nowatzke can tell you their order and the condiments they’ll put on the dog before they ever reach the counter.

And they’re all types.

“I have everybody from attorneys to the homeless guy who just got $3 and spends it on a quarter-pounder,” Nowatzke said.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug has become a regular. Weinaug said the dogs — all beef, made by a Chicago company — are good. They almost rival the ambiance.

“You always meet interesting people sitting on this bench,” Weinaug said. “And you get to harass the proprietor about his haircut.”

Nowatzke tries not to overthink the business strategy. No employees, no advertising — well, the stand does have a Facebook page now — and just good, traditional hot dogs.

For some, it is a formula that never seems to stop working.

Chris Czel stops at the stand every time he’s in Lawrence. The Connecticut transplant lives in Prairie Village now.

With two dogs in hand, he had a plan for the afternoon.

“I’m going to sit out in the sun,” Czel said, “and fantasize about being at Fenway.”

See, simple.

Comments

Peaty Romano 5 years, 6 months ago

Craig is a great guy, my family and I get hot dogs from him all the time.

kusp8 5 years, 6 months ago

...at least she walked to get the hot dog?

shleppy 5 years, 6 months ago

I love craigs sausage, its the best in town. and filling.

Chris Ogle 5 years, 6 months ago

I know some stores have come and gone, but downtown still has the feel — nutty people and people who accept them,” Nowatzke said.

You gotta love this guy.... tell it like it is, and deal with it.

dandelion 5 years, 6 months ago

chuckabee, May is a very nice person, who walks to many places downtown. She has many health problems and is a little slow mentally. I am so happy that you are healthy. Let's hope you stay that way, so people like you won't make fun of you. If you would ever get cancer or have organ failures, you would not have the movie star physique that I'm sure you have now (not!, snicker, snicker).

Alia Ahmed 5 years, 6 months ago

dandelion, thanks for your comments. Som people freely make judgments and snide comments rarely knowing someone's situation. Congratulations to Craig for having a business he seems to enjoy.

gsxr600 5 years, 6 months ago

No thanks, I'll take my food sanitary.

bluerose 5 years, 6 months ago

gsxr600, if you think MickeyD's and BoogerKing are sanitary - or even your own home kitchen - think again!

germs are everywhere.

EarthaKitt 5 years, 6 months ago

Her name is May! She's been a fixture around town for quite some time. Glad to have a name for the face.

gsxr600, sanitary food is never as good as the stuff made by a guy in a wife-beater sweating and smoking over a greasy grill. Case in point: Yello Sub campus. Disgusting, delicious.

BrianR 5 years, 6 months ago

gsxr600 (Anonymous) says… "No thanks, I'll take my food sanitary."

Take an immune system out of petty cash.

greenquarter 5 years, 6 months ago

I'm so glad this story wasn't about what a miracle it is that this guy manages to get through each and every day while "confined" to a wheelchair (note the sarcastic quotes, thank you very much). When I saw the photo I was sure it would be yet another breathless, condescending story about someone with a disability who manages to make it through every day. But it actually was about downtown more than making a spectacle out of a disabled businessman (though there was a little of that). Also glad to have a name to go with the face--May! I see her all the time and have for years.

Linda Aikins 5 years, 6 months ago

I haven't had one for years but now I plan to. Great story!

bearded_gnome 5 years, 6 months ago

I felt his disability was quite well handled, especially since it is a major part of what got him to this job.

I wonder, you suppose our comments about him under the "street vendors" poll got the ljworld poobahs to assign Chad this article?


anyway, hang in there Craig! keep at it as long as you can.

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 6 months ago

I wish the article would have gone into what permits are required, if any, to operate a street-side marketplace. Anyone have any clue on that? Does the city take a cut of his sales? If the regulations are limited, I wonder what stops all the downtown shops from ditching their inflated rent buildings, closing their doors, and moving outside to make everyday a sidewalk sale.

woodenfleaeater 5 years, 6 months ago

How 'bout a Gyro stand....How does everyone think that would do?

Jonathan Kealing 5 years, 6 months ago

Here's the details on how you get a license:

Also inlined as a link in the story.

Jonathan Kealing Online editor

Alia Ahmed 5 years, 6 months ago

Jonathan, thanks for the information. I've wondered what it took to get a license. I'm guessing the vendor has to have some sort of liability insurance too.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 5 months ago

gsxr600 Your remark was uncalled for and makes you sound like a snob. You must be a Yankee fan. Food, wonderful food. Jonathan what is the most number of posts a story or a blog has had and who has the record. My guess would be Ronda.

begin60 5 years, 5 months ago

Kudos, greenquarter--your comment is spot-on. These condescending attitudes toward otherwise diignified and productive human beings often seem to form the bread and butter of the LJ World newspaper. They pervade the local culture with a sickly sentimentality too. Of course, many locals probably lap this stuff up uncritically. It's almost a false identification or projection that somehow allows people to handle their own emotions by displacing them on others they see as less fortunate through super-crip stories or the opposite but equally warped idea that encourages some to define themselves as good people by approaching strangers they perceive as needy and helpless due to having physical limitations and thus offensively insinuating themselves into the space of a person they have never met with offers of so-called "help" based on limiting, bigoted assumptions.

I love the hotdogs and see Nowatzke as a great cook and a handsome and deeply charismatic salesperson.

kmat 5 years, 5 months ago

Oldenuf - there is a link above and the cart is called the Sundog Hotdog Stand. You can search for that on Facebook. Craig has a lot of great pictures on there. He is also a professional photographer and takes great candid shots of life downtown.

Craig is an awesome guy. Known him for years. And he sells veggie Italian sausages for those of us that don't eat meat.

woodenfleaeater 5 years, 5 months ago

kmat......If you don't eat yourr meat, you can't have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

RKLOG 5 years, 5 months ago

I hope this is legal in Lawrence. Eating hot dogs has led to many premature deaths. Is there barbwire surrounding the vendor? I'm scared!

kmat 5 years, 5 months ago

I take it you got a ticket on the dam and are pissed, RKLOG. Take your hatred of the cops elsewhere. This article is about Craig.

issiesmommy 5 years, 5 months ago

i've known may for years and it's so cool to see her in the paper!!

james bush 5 years, 5 months ago

The best "hot tamales" in my experience are those I remember from the 1940's in Kansas City, Mo. which a guy who looked like a derelict sold from a push cart with a bell every day about 3pm for a nickel or 3 for a dime. I wouldn't buy one from a guy like him in today's world though.......and I have reservations about many fast food places too. I see stuff on tv about creeps spitting in the food. I hate that I've come to feel this way...dammit! Bet these hot dogs are good though.

kmat 5 years, 5 months ago

jimincountry - go have a dog. Craig and his cart are very clean and sanitary. Cleaner than most restaurants you'll eat at.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 5 months ago

begin60, you are an idiot, please give it a rest. I don't believe a word you write because it is just vague ranting about someone who did something somewhere.

begin60 5 years, 5 months ago

Irish, please learn to read and to stop posting personal attacks and insults-- Your post above constitutes an ad hominem attack not worthy of civil, adult dscussion. In this post I am complimenting the hot vendor and saying the paper did a relatively good job on this story. You are usually more perceptive in your comments. I'm talking about dumb cultural norms in Lawrence that unfairly treat some people as second-class citizens. Reflecting the way the LJ World often chooses to present its citizens, many people in Lawrence seem to have concerning ethical and legal issues with terrorizing and frightening strangers by approaching them in public on the basis of unfair, prejudiced assumptions-- they too often wear their offensive bigotry on their sleeves. This is a quality of life and non-discrimination issue and a concrete social issue worthy of discussion. When privacy rights are involved some people have the dignity not to hang their soiled laundry in public. Civil rights violations by the less than sophisticated can easily have the effect of ticking people off; they even angered a pacificist like Martin Luther King, Jr..

daschie88 5 years, 5 months ago

Hey Irish...I'm a Boston fan and I'll have to agree with gsxr600. I'm sure Craig is a great guy and all, but logically speaking it is much harder to keep hot dogs on the street at what's considered a safe temperature compared to Mickey D's or Booger King. Granted there are going to be germs everywhere, but when you can't keep food at the right temperature, the risk of food-borne illness skyrockets.

dontcallmedan 5 years, 5 months ago

"...he'll sell between 50 to 100 hot dogs, sausages, links and-swallow hard, Tofurkey products..." Meat head journalism. I doubt if the writer has tasted one of Chris' veggie dogs. At least you know what's in them. Besides, Chris says they're starting to sell.

RoeDapple 5 years, 5 months ago

Dang, hadn't run across any of begin60's comments lately. Thought maybe she had fallen and couldn't get up..............

Hatsuykuki 5 years, 5 months ago

So wait, has this guy ever done shaved ice before? Because it seems like an awful lot of work just to mimic the other shaved ice place on mass. Little short on sympathy at the moment..

Cordelia Brown 5 years, 5 months ago

Is it legal to drive up on the sidewalk, on Mass.?

Which corner did he rent for 2009? I've seen him on four different corners in the last month:

NE corner of 8th and Mass -- in front of Teller's? NE corner of 9th and Mass -- in front of 3rd Planet? SW corner of 9th and Mass -- in front of Weaver's? SE corner of 9th and Mass -- in front of the bank?

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