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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ode to a Hot Dog Stand

Air Date: Week of

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During its seventy year tenure, a hot dog stand in Oakland has become an anchor for residents of the city’s Temescal neighborhood in good times and bad. Producer Peter Thomson prepared our sound portrait of The Original Kaspers.


CURWOOD: Think about that special spot you remember from your hometown. Maybe it was a store or a restaurant or a playground. That spot where you felt, “this is my town, my place, my home.” Chances are there was a unique name over the door and a unique character behind the counter or concession stand.
And in some corners of America, these quirky old businesses still survive. One of these is a little scrap of a place in the neighborhood of Temescal, in Oakland, California. It’s called Original Kasper’s Hot Dogs, and for more than 70 years it’s served up a sense of community along with ketchup and onions. Producer Peter Thomson has this sound portrait.
YAGLIJIAN : Hey, how are you doing today?
MALE: Man, I’m ...(inaudible). I need a hot dog.
YAGLIJIAN: Okay, one original coming right up.
MALE: I love Kasper dogs, and they do something a little different to spice it. I think ...(inaudible)
YAGLIJIAN: It’s just amazing what a simple little item like this hot dog, the kind of joy that it brings to people.
FEMALE: It’s more than just a hot dog. It’s the feeling that they make you feel when you come here. It’s like home.
MALE: Oh my god, I’ve been coming here since before Harry was born. [laughs] Keeps me going.
YAGLIJIAN: My name is Harry Yaglijian, I operate Original Kasper’s Hot Dogs, the original Kasper’s at 45th and Telegraph, right where Shattuck and Telegraph meet here in Oakland, California. And we were founded in 1929 by my grandfather, Kasper Kajulian. And this business was run by my father for over 50 years, between 1947 and 1997, at which point I took over managing the business.

The late Henry Yaglijian.
(Photo: Emilio Mercado)

MALE: I have an aunt who used to live here in Oakland. She’s 88 years old. She lives in Los Angeles. If I get the hot dog before I fly down, she’ll eat it when I get off the plane. And whenever she comes here, this is her first stop, Kasper’s. She’s coming up in May.
YAGLIJIAN: Oh is that right?
MALE: Yeah. I think this is why she’s coming. She’s not coming to see us. [laughs] She's hungry for a hot dog. That’s all she talks about.
MALE: A little over 30 years ago when I first came here somebody said, if you want to get a good hot dog, there’s a place called Kasper’s where Telegraph and Shattuck meet. And I said, Telegraph and Shattuck don’t meet, they’re parallel to each other. And they said, no, they meet and there’s this very peculiar little triangular building at the intersection. And sure enough, they were right. You have to almost smile looking at the building because who would build a building like this? [laughs] It’s like two feet wide at one end and not much wider at the other, like a miniature flatiron building.
MALE: The first thing I noticed about Kasper’s when I moved here was the building itself, this really tiny, odd-shaped, almost ramshackle-- it’s a very unusual building. And the feeling was that it had been there for an awful long time.
MALE: Let me have five.
YAGLIJIAN: Five? All for you? The record is nine, you know. I saw a woman eat seven of them.
YAGLIJIAN: I was mentioning to a customer this morning who asked about how many hot dogs my father sold in the 50 years that he worked here. And I calculated it out to be somewhere between four and a half and five million hot dogs.
YAGLIJIAN: There’s a way to make a hot dog, at least the style of hot dog that we make. And they have to go together in a particular way, just so everything kind of works together. This is what I try to teach the people that work for me and this is what was taught to me by my dad. He would say, no, cut the onion like this, or slice the tomatoes this way because they fit in the hot dog better.
So many times when people see on our hot dog board anywhere from two to ten hot dogs being prepared, they’ll go, this is a work of art. It is art.
YAGLIJIAN: Before my dad came into the hot dog business he was a gem cutter, a lapidarist, actually, I think is the proper term. And he cut precious and semiprecious stones for a company in Los Angeles named Kazanjian Brothers Jewelers. I don’t think the hot dog business was something he would have chosen for himself. I mean, he was doing something that he really enjoyed doing, he loved, and that he was very, very good at. You know, after my mom and dad married, I can only imagine that my grandmother, who was left with this business, was having a very difficult time, and probably put a lot of pressure on my mom to come back and help her. So he left the gem-cutting business in LA and moved my mom and-- who was pregnant with me at the time-- back up here to Oakland to keep harmony in the family.
But after he made the decision to get into the hot dog business, he really did commit himself to it. And he loved the people that came in here and he loved his little-- he called this his “little place” and he loved it.
MALE: (MUNCHING} Thank God for Kasper’s. I save my hot dog credits for this place mostly, or an A’s game. It’s so much better around here now, again. It seemed like it got really funky for a while there, like 10, 15 years ago or something. People moving out, other people either not moving in or not improving, and then a lot of drugs, I think. And this wasn’t the worst, by far, but I just think it affected Oakland heavily. I think it just sapped a lot of the spirit and the money and everything, the will.
MALE: Oakland was a haven for the gangs and the drugs. And I had said that I would never live in Oakland again, and I joined the military.
MALE: The economic decline, on Telegraph Avenue anyway, began in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s, when the freeway was being built. There were hundreds of houses removed. There were many, many businesses that were demolished. So, a lot of people moved away.
YAGLIJIAN: As the demographics of the neighborhood changed, the businesses that were traditionally relying upon the neighborhood base started to experience decline. And this is especially true of the ethnic businesses. The predominantly Italian nature of the neighborhood meant that there were many businesses here that catered to the Italian culture. And when the clientele left, they just couldn’t hold on.
MALE: The average business would have probably moved a long time ago from the strife that this place has had. But, to show his determination to stay and the belief in the community, he’s here. He’s here and he’s not going.
YAGLIJIAN: Over the 50 years that my dad worked this business, he was held up almost 40 times. Working alone in a little store like this, through some of the rough times that this neighborhood has experienced, was no picnic. But, on the other hand, it’s also one of the reasons why my father gained so much respect from the people that lived here for so long. Because he hung in there, just like they did.
MALE: It’s like a neighborhood anchor.
MALE: I refer to it as the anchor of Temescal.
MALE: This is home.
MALE: It’s a haunt, you know, it’s a neighborhood thing. It’s good because I got some really bad stuff going on right now and it’s good to be able to depend on something. I depend on Kasper’s for that. It’s real good that it’s here. Real good.. [laughs]
YAGLIJIAN: I was just going to ask, Brad, do you want your lemon chicken dog the lemon chicken dog way, or the Kasper way?
BRAD: Which--the Kasper’s way with the cheese and stuff, right? No, no, no. I want it your way.
YAGLIJIAN: Italian parsley--
BRAD: Yeah, all that, and then two Kasper’s to go. I used to go to high school up the street and I’ve been coming here since then. This was the place to go after school. Kasper’s makes it in front of McDonald’s, what is this, Jack in the Box. No matter what they throw at it, it’s still here. It’ll be here after they leave.
YAGLIJIAN: The original Kasper’s is a place that people--it’s a place that if it were not there, people would find there would be a hole in their lives. As far as my part in it, it’s, I mean, I’ve struggled with my part in it, to be honest with you. But I stay with it because it’s something that’s so much a part of the history of my family, the history of this place, Oakland and the Temescal area. So much a part of so many other people’s lives, that I just can’t ever imagine it closing. I’m not going to say that I don’t want to do other things, but Kasper’s is a place that will always be there because it’s a place that always has to be there.
YAGLIJIAN: Here come the kids. It’s candy time.
BOY: Kasper got some good hot dogs.
GIRL: They’re nice people because when we come in, they let us stay in when it’s raining and stuff. And they--if we don’t have enough money--they let us pay them back and stuff. So I like Kasper’s a lot.
BOY: They got hot dogs about that big, like a ruler.
GIRL: You know how most people, like, when they see a whole bunch of black kids they be wanting to try to kick us out, talking about only two at a time. And they let us all go in there.
GIRL: Sometimes they give us free food. Sometimes, but not all the time.
GIRL: I’m sorry that a long time ago, like 2000, the person that owned this place, he had died. And his son has taken over, and a couple friends.
BOY: How did he die, though? How did he die?
YAGLIJIAN: You do want this spicy, right, young lady?
FEMALE: Yes, please.
BOY: You gonna have a hot dog?
MALE: I had one for lunch.
BOY: Oh, you did?
MALE: Yeah.
BOY: How did it taste?
MALE: Delicious. Have you had one?
BOY: No. I want to try one though. I ain’t got enough money, so…[sighs] One of these days. I want to ask him if I can get a free hot dog. Can I get a free hot dog?
BOY: Thanks.
YAGLIJIAN: You’re welcome. Do me a favor: don’t tell your friends. There’ll be a line over here asking for free hot dogs all day long.
BOY: What?
MALE: How’s that dog?
BOY: [Smack, smack] Excellent.
YAGLIJIAN: So, here’s one original, coming right up. I’m taking a nice, freshly-steamed bun, put a little bit of mustard in the bottom of it. There we go with the hot dog in the bun, and now we’re going to put a little relish on. A little more mustard on top, and then I’ll slice the onions. An Original Kasper’s hot dog always has sliced onions on it, so--although we’ll chop your onions for you if you really have to have it that way.
So, now I’ve made three slices of onions and I’ve put them on one side of the hot dog. I’ve sliced three little wedges of tomato and I’m putting them on the other side of the hot dog. A dash of salt. A dash of our special combo pepper. Di lo papidi, as one of my gypsy customers calls it. And there we have an Original Kasper’s hot dog. Mustard, tomato, sweet relish and onions, sliced onions. And that’s how we’ve done it since 1929.
So, your total is $3.98 altogether…out of five. This makes four and the one makes five, and thank you very much, have a wonderful day. Take care.
FEMALE: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Our portrait of Original Kasper’s Hot Dogs was produced by Peter Thomson.
And if your mouth is watering for a Kasper’s dog just about now, well, you’ll just have to wait a few weeks. Owner Harry Yaglijian tells us he’s closing the Original Kasper’s for its first major renovations in 60 years. Harry hopes to be serving up his dogs again in March.
[MUSIC: Davi Hewitt “Streetbeat” A World Instrumental Collection, Putumayo World Music (1996)]
CURWOOD: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Oak Foundation, supporting coverage of marine issues, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.



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