Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The View From Behind the Hot Dog Counter

So, I get drafted by the Band Boosters of the high school where my daughter is in the band to volunteer in the concession stand at Laidley Field for the Kanawha County Band and Majorette Festival. I arrive at five o'clock having absolutely no idea of what I'll be doing but in possession of a willing spirit to perform the most menial and demeaning task for the next five to six hours. My enthusiasm was dampened greatly when I walked behind the counter and found the calzone oven, deep fryers, hot tables and bun steamers made the temperature hover at about 115 degrees with 110% relative humidity. I was determined though, that I would persevere.

So I offered myself up in service to the person who seemed to be in charge. I told her I was completely inexperienced but a quick learner and I would be glad to scrub floors, clean out the grease traps - you know, the kind of stuff this guy does. The boss puts her finger on her chin in a thoughtful "hmmm" kind of way and then with eyes full of hope she asks, "Do you know anything about hot dogs?"

"Yes", I told her trying to hide my smile of conceit, "I know a little about hot dogs." To myself I thought "Ha! Little do these mortals know!"

And thus began my journey into the hot, sweaty, greasy world of hot dog slinging at the concession stand.

Now before you little league parents get all high and mighty and say that you know concession stand work, let me tell you that the Majorette Festival is a doggone big deal in Charleston and there are probably 12,000 people in attendance. All of them came to the concession stand at least once, I am convinced. Most, it seemed, ordered hot dogs. In large quantities.

Now the process of assembling hot dogs is fairly simple: Load the buns in the steamer, take them out and put on the weenie, apply the toppings and put them in the hot table bins as appropriate. There are five models of hot dogs at Laidley: Everything (chili, slaw and onions), Chili and Slaw, Chili and Onions, just Chili and, finally, Plain. The people who work the front counter are supposed to take orders for only those combinations with no special orders. This isn't Burger King: Special orders DO upset us.

In addition to assembly, the hot dog team also has to keep a good supply of chil and weenies on the stove at all times, lest you run out and be lynched by the starving mob.

Our two-person hot dog team worked feverishly all night to keep an adequate supply of all of the various combinations on the hot table bins, but sometimes it was like bailing out a leaky boat with a tea strainer. An endless stream of humanity flowed through the concession stand entrance. Their methods were devious yet simple: They would eye the available hot dogs in the bin (which are clearly visible from the ordering area), pick out the category with the fewest number of hot dogs and order a half-dozen of that type. If the hot dog team was ever in danger of satisfying the demand of any supply point, a special operative was immediately dispatched to place a special order for a hot dog with slaw only, or onions only, or some other non-standard configuration that made the entire assembly line screech to a halt while the primadona's special needs were addressed. Once the special was passed to the front, the work of re-supplying the bins began again.

And again. And again. For five hours. Over 500 hot dogs. I really don't know how many we made because I simply lost count after about 480, a milestone that was passed about halfway through the evening. The total might have been closer to a thousand, I really don't know: I was in The Zone.

After a while I entered a transcendent state where my brain just switched off and muscle memory took over and I began to make hot dogs like a robot. The only time my trance was broken was when I reached for onions and found that someone had moved the onion container to the prep area where it was being loaded with a new supply of fresh chopped stuff. After that it took me a few minutes to find The Zone again but once I was there it lasted throughout the night until that glorious moment when the doors to the concession stand were closed for the evening. After an hour or so of cleaning up, my sentence was over and I was released from my bondage.

Now I'd like to say that my evening on the other side of the counter has made me more understanding as to the plight of the Weenie Workers of America. I'd like to tell you that I'm going to be a kinder, gentler Weenie Wonk as a result of walking a mile in the shoes of a Weenieista. But the truth is, I found out that even in the midst of crushing crowds that far exceed what a typical HDJ experiences on the busiest of lunch hours, there is still time to create a hot dog with care. So there will be no excuses accepted in the future for sloppily prepared hot dogs. You have been warned.

A word about the ingredients they serve at the Laidley concession stand:

Custard Stand Chili - OK, as a good West Virginian I should support this state success story. But it's just OK. It's not great.

Gunnoe's Slaw - Huge, hard chunks of cabbage and other cabbage-like substances. Not very good.

Weenies - Generic Food Service.

Buns - There was no name on the packaging, but I assume they were Heiners. They insist on steaming them at Laidley, which is a good thing.


Christopher Scott Jones said...

I was a huge Custard Stand mark at first, but I'm pretty sure I was just attatched to the idea of a WV chili sauce maybe making it big. Too much ketchup in it for my tastes. I'd love for Sam's to take a crack at sauce pimpin' someday.

As for Gunnoe's, Ballard's is by far the better slaw. Too bad they damn near poisoned the entire Eastern Seaboard last year.

The Film Geek said...

Great post! At any time, did you yell out: "No ketchup for you!!"

Just curious.

larryosaurus said...

Awesome post! If only they knew...