“Can I get a combo Chicago-style dog please?” a customer asked as he ordered his lunch at Ralph and Carolyn Levy’s hot dog stand set up just outside Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“You want it all the way?” asked Ralph Levy of the customer, a veterinarian at the college.
Ralph Levy turned from the small ordering counter to the hot pans behind him filled with franks and wieners as he prepared the signature Chicago-style hot dog.
“A Chicago-style hot dog is an all-beef hot dog,” Ralph Levy explained. “Preferably the brand
He places the hot dog on a steamed, poppy seed bun and then adds the essential toppings.
“Neon-green relish, fresh onions, sliced tomatoes, these are called
The Levys can be found behind the counter of their hot dog stand at the veterinary school during lunch on most Mondays through Thursdays. They started their business last June and have been selling at the veterinary college since last July. Besides Chicago-style hot dogs, customers can buy BLT hot dogs, chili cheese dogs, spinach Asiago chicken sausage hot dogs served with caramelized onions and vegan Tofurky sausage hot dogs.
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“What’s interesting is the Chicago hot dog has really caught on,” Ralph Levy
Having always been in the cooking business in some form or another, Ralph Levy gets his hot dog savvy from his childhood home of Chicago.
“My father had restaurants in Chicago that were probably like the precursor to what Waffle Houses are,” he said. “My father’s idea of a vacation was to take Ralph to work. There was always a 100-pound sack of potatoes that needed to be peeled or something that needed to be done. But I hung around; I got to do a little bit of everything, so got it drilled into me I guess or by osmosis, watching people.”
Both of the Levys have always been drawn to small business, and it was their shared entrepreneurial spirit that brought them together. They met in Gainesville, Florida, where Carolyn Levy owned a European toy store and high-end children’s clothing store, and Ralph Levy worked at a pizza place in the same strip mall.
“He came down to play with toys from Europe, and I went down to eat pizza,” Carolyn Levy said with a laugh. “We work great together.”
Ralph Levy eventually moved to Auburn to help start a Chicago-style pizza business, and the Levy’s have been in Auburn since — about 35 years.
Ralph Levy said he’s always wanted to incorporate Chicago-style hot dogs into a business he was running.
“I tried it one time before, and it did not work,” he said. “People just were not quite ready for Chicago-style hot dogs in Auburn, Alabama. … Then when I retired, I decided I was going to do it.”
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This time, when the Levys started selling hot dogs last year, they found a market for the Chicago dog. But it was at the University veterinary school that they discovered a solid, friendly and hungry customer base.
The veterinary college, situated a couple of miles from the main campus, doesn’t have many dining options like the rest of the University. Food options are limited and sometimes unpredictable.
“There was a food truck that was coming here last year,” Ralph Levy said. “I don’t know what happened to it. People say it had good food, but it just didn’t show up when they said they would. There’s actually a little commercial kitchen inside this building where the vending machines are now, and people have come in and actually done
This has worked as an advantage for the Levys, as the hot dog stand is a popular lunch destination for veterinary doctors and students.
“We have no cafeteria,” said the ordering veterinarian as he waited for his food.
Besides being good for business, the Levys enjoy the veterinary school as they have always loved being involved with students.
“It’s a wonderful group of people that pretty much live at the vet school,” Ralph Levy said.
For Carolyn Levy, who runs her own business teaching young girls how to sew, getting to interact with the students is one of the main reasons she comes out to help her husband sell hot dogs. The more talkative of the two, she jokes and chats with customers about their days and asks how their pets are doing.
“They’re so friendly and charming and nice and interesting,” Carolyn Levy said of their veterinary customers. “And at first, I think they were surprised. We’re not your typical hot dog vendors. … It didn’t take them long to figure that out. They have made us feel very welcome, and we have had the best conversations.”
The Levys have been surrounded by kids and students in one form or another for a long time. They raised their son in Auburn and he attended Auburn University as well.
“When our son was in school at Auburn, our house was sort of like the place to hang out for the War Eagle Girls and Plainsmen,” said Ralph Levy.
At that time, the Levys had a separate house on their property for entertaining, and students would come over to study and socialize.
In line with their affection for youth, Ralph Levy likes to sell items at his hot dog stand that customers often haven’t had since their childhood such as Cheetos and grape and orange soda.
“Students come out and they see Cheetos, ‘Aw, I haven’t had Cheetos in years!’” Ralph Levy said.
Since he sometimes sells at Auburn Parks and Recreation events involving kids, he keeps grape and orange soda on hand in his warehouse. One business day at the veterinary school, he put a couple of them in the drink cooler.
“They were the first ones that sold,” he said. “So I started bringing a couple at a timeout, and I’ve had people almost have knockdown fights over who’s getting the last one.”
Ralph Levy attributes their business’s success to good food prepared quickly. The Levys have many regular customers, some who eat hot dogs every day.
“When they have a test, they need a little bit of soul food,” Carolyn Levy said of the students.
“We’re not trying to be the McDonald’s of hot dogs,” Ralph Levy said. “Just kind of enjoying this, just good food. It’s not elegant, but it’ll fill you up.”
As long as the Levys are around, Auburn will be seasoned with a little flavor of Chicago, hot dog style.
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