Historic hot dogs make a comeback in Oakland

May 22, 2017

 

This neighborhood is a palimpsest. Old buildings are filled with new shops and services, apartments are torn down, lots are leveled, and something else springs up. 

Usually, dramatic population increases and skyrocketing real estate values displace long time residents. But for one lifelong Oakland local, they’re changing his fortunes for the better.

 

I met Harry Yaglijian when he started selling hot dogs at the bar where I work. I'm curious about his hot dog business and the old building where he used to sell them, so I asked him if we could take a walk down Telegraph Avenue to the old shop. As we walk, he talks about the past.

 

“There was a place called the Buon Gusto bakery that used to be here,” he says. “This was back in the days when it was an Italian neighborhood.”

 

Harry was born here, and the neighborhood has changed around him.

 

“I don’t remember what a lot of these stores were like,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of them were scraped off to build something else. Probably a condo.This place here, the Pyong Chiang Tofu house used to be a Sportsmans Club.” Harry tells me that – according to rumor – local law enforcement used to have a shooting range in the basement.

 

Many of the memories here have been razed. But the smallest building on the block hasn’t been knocked down yet, and it’s Harry’s.

 

The Original Kasper’s

 

Harry’s grandfather Kasper started selling hot dogs in 1929. The Original Kasper’s was Harry’s hot dog joint. It’s a little flatiron building where Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues meet in the heart of North Oakland’s commercial district.

 

“It’s the only hot dog stand in the country with its own city block,” Harry says.

 

The Yaglijians operated out of the same building that Harry’s grandfather opened back in 1943. Then the business was passed to Harry’s father.

 

“When I was an infant,” says Harry, “he kept the onions back here in the shelf. So I used to sleep right down here.”

 

His dad ran the shop for half a century, and after he retired, Harry took over. But in 2003, Harry closed for repairs and couldn’t afford to re-open. Original Kasper’s hot dogs has been boarded up since then, with almost 60 years of Oakland history locked inside. The building is a wistful landmark for longtime residents and a mysterious artifact for newcomers.

 

That’s what makes Harry Yaglijian so important. He’s living history. And he’s also an unlikely success story in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood.

 

Just because his family business is closed doesn’t mean Harry isn’t making dogs. Now he’s serving them up on game nights at a local bar.

 

Harry’s hot dogs

 

It’s a Sunday morning. Harry’s at the bar. He’s sold a couple of hot dogs already. And he’s singing Willie Nelson’s ballad “Crazy” while he cleans up his hot dog cart. Harry’s a musician. He plays four instruments. His charm, and cooking, have won over La Tanya Houston, one of the bartenders. She brings her own sauerkraut to work now, because sauerkraut isn’t part of the original Kasper’s recipe.

 

A quick note about Harry’s hot dogs. Harry steams his dogs and his buns, slices his tomatoes and onions to order, and uses a special pepper blend, the details of which he would not disclose. After adding relish and two layers of mustard, he wraps it up the way his grandfather did.

 

“Harry’s hot dogs are the best,” La Tanya tells me. “They’re always hot and fresh. The buns are really good. And Harry really puts his foot in. He does it from his heart. He doesn’t do it for money. He likes to see people happy.”

 

Harry’s gaining a new following through sales at the bar. So the city growth that’s pricing out many residents could actually put Kasper’s back in business.

 

“I’m working with someone to lease Kasper’s,” he says, “who wants to turn it back into Kasper’s again, which is what I want done with it. So Original Kasper’s is going to come back some time next year.”

 

For locals like Michael Hunt, Kasper’s is part of home.

 

“I grew up going there,” he says. “Kasper’s is just one of those things that has a very deep connection with Oaklanders. I feel like we hold on to things that are born and raised here, much like myself.”

 

A changing Temescal

 

So Kasper’s is closed, but Harry’s hot dogs are still in demand. I ask Harry: Why couldn’t the store make it?

 

“Money,” he says, “and bureaucracy.”

 

Harry closed the shop for a few changes, but then he says the Health Department began to demand more than he could afford.

 

According to Karen Chapple, Professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, it’s not unusual for long term businesses to suffer when a neighborhood changes. The business improvement district asked her department to survey the businesses in Temescal in 2007.

 

“At that point the issue was vacancies and the slow decline of the area,” she says. “The concentrations of liquor stores. Also the threat to long-term, family owned businesses, which they feared would be lost from the area.”

 

The San Francisco tech boom has relentlessly driven up real estate prices. There’s been an influx of higher income residents, that’s changing the market for goods on Telegraph avenue. Boutiques are in, and mom and pop shops are getting priced out. Karen says business turnover is natural, but here, it’s higher than normal.

 

“So it comes up on the radar as being a gentrifying commercial district,” she says.

 

Still, she notes that certain businesses are exceptional.

 

“Actually in gentrifying neighborhoods, some of the most successful business are those that have a market that cut across cultures and across classes,” she says. “Those are the ones that we can expect to see survive these neighborhood changes. And those that are smart enough to buy their building.”

 

If anything can cut across cultures and classes, it may well be a hot dog. That, and the good attitude that Harry Yaglijian serves up along with them. It’s certainly been true in the past.

 

Harry’s brief history of Oakland

 

If Original Kasper’s reopens, the future long-term residents of Temescal will get to join the illustrious ranks of Kasper's patrons, which covers pretty much everybody, according to Harry. Former Oakland Mayors, for example.

 

“Ron Dellums used to come in all the time,” he says. “As the story goes, he would come in before every election and get his lucky hot dog. He never needed a lucky anything – he was always going to get elected. You can find Ron and ask him if it’s true!”

 

Some revolutionary figures from the civil rights movement were customers as well. Harry says Black Panther Party leaders like Huey Newton were regular customers.

 

“That photograph of him sitting in that African kings chair with a beret on,” he remembers. “I think he had a rifle and a scepter, something like that. He was a very nice looking man and instantly recognizable.”

 

Original Kasper’s was a community place, and the community came in. Harry tells me that they served everyone from presidential candidates to paupers. When police cracked down on local prostitution, the women often sought refuge in his tiny shop. Once, his dad serenaded them under a paper lamp that still hangs from the ceiling. Harry tells the story with a gleam in his eye.

 

“All these girls come in and he knows all of them!” he says of his father. “He’d say, ‘Hi, honey! How are you? How’s business?’ There had to be 20, 25 girls in here on the stools and the counter. My dad loved to sing, and they knew that. They'd say, ‘Harry sing for us!’”

 

Tending the past

 

These days, you’ll often find Harry out front of the Original Kasper’s building, painting over graffiti that garnishes its rust colored walls. He’s not just maintaining the building. He’s keeping up a memory of his father and his grandfather. I catch up with him on one of his maintenance visits. He unlocks all the locks on the old door and uses his shoulder to get it open.

 

It’s really small in here, and dim because the windows are boarded with plywood. There’s dust on the linoleum counter, and some forgotten dishes wait behind the glass of antique refrigerators. Harry leans back against the doorframe and talks about how the area has changed.

 

“It’s gone through periods where it was a fairly rough neighborhood,” he says. “It’s really pulled itself out of that over the years. There was trouble here at various times. I think my father was held up officially 39 times over the 50 years he worked here.”

 

There’s a reminder of his father in the bones of this place: “He ended up standing on this cement floor,” Harry says, pointing at a particular groove. “You can see right here, where he wore the cement away, there’s a big divot that’s two feet across. A little divot where he wore away the cement after all those years.”

 

Talk about carving a niche for yourself. Before we leave, a curious couple walks by, doubles back, and peeks inside. Harry invites them in to take a look, before locking the old door up again.

It’s this kind of curiosity, paired with a loyal customer base, that may give Original Kasper’s a second chance. The doors could open up to the Temescal neighborhood once again. Considering the market, Harry can’t just leave it sitting empty. That would be crazy.