Hot dog business is everything for The Unemployee
BY IRV LEAVITT email@example.com
What kind of roll does this take? Little Louie's Red Hots owner Pete Weiss cracks up as Irv Leavitt carries a watermelon to a prep table. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
The proprietor of Little Louie’s Red Hots glanced over my shoulder as I scooped up some relish, and he saw the empty bun in front of me.
“The hot dog goes in first,” Pete Weiss advised quietly.
You spend your life trying to solve the great mysteries, slay the big dragons, and conquer your personal demons, only to find out that when the chips are down, you cannot be depended upon to properly insert a weenie in a poppy-seed roll.
Chastened, I willed myself to conquer the methods of hot-dog-with-everything, and Weiss rewarded me with a “Great job! You’re living the dream.”
Dream? What dream, I asked, might that be?
“You’d be amazed how many guys tell me they always wanted to be in the hot dog business,” he said. “Not you?”
Not me. My dream is to walk behind the elephant that nobody else knows has suddenly learned to poop $100 bills.
That’s the kind of line Weiss expects from me.
“Today, you can be like Ed!” he kept saying. Ed Glanz sold him Little Louie’s 13 years ago, and was known for, shall we say, an acerbic tongue.
So I tried it on a young woman who had gotten wind that I was working the day shift at 1342 Shermer Road in Northbrook for The Unemployee.
“Hey now. When you write, you be nice to my friends,” she lectured, with her sweetest put-me-in-the-paper grin.
“Friends? You have no friends here,” I told her. “They’re friends with your money.”
She stood there stuttering, on the point of tears.
“They are, too, my friends,” she retorted, and ran off.
They don’t make customers the way they used to.
It may have something to do with the salads. I don’t recall Glanz selling any, but Weiss sells a lot of them. And you don’t get tough eating lettuce, strawberries and grilled chicken.
I dropped off a tray of salads and drinks at a table shared by a couple of slim and trim ladies in their 30’s, and one of them said, “Everything is great, except we don’t have our French fries.”
You don’t have what?
“French fries,” she repeated. “What’s a salad without French fries?”
Much, much healthier. But never mind. I’ll get ‘em.
I also delivered a salad to the table of retired Northbrook Village Manager John Novinson, who had some stents stuck in his heart in 1999. Hold the fries.
Though he’s known me over 20 years, he didn’t recognize me in my apron and fashionable red, white and blue T-shirt and Little Louie’s cap.
“Oh, it’s you!” he finally exclaimed after I returned with forgotten utensils.
He inquired whether I had finally given up on my more familiar attempts at gainful employment.
I told him I was still hanging in there.
There are some similarities, actually.
Case in point: When politicians tell me their sad stories of being misunderstood by unappreciative voters and prosecutors, sometimes I have to fight back a tear.
And while dicing small mountains of onions in the back room at Little Louie’s, head prep cook Marcial Montiel and I were barely able to exchange the names of our children and our home towns between the sobs.
Well, mostly my sobs. Montiel had more self-control.
All the old tricks of chopping onions dry-eyed kind of go out the window when there are so many you lose count, and each one is the size of a Buick.
I did a lot of prep work before the doors opened at 10:30 a.m., mostly salads for catering. I’m fast with a knife — everybody from my old neighborhood is — so that was easy. But I did learn something new from Montiel.
Chop celery dirty. Then wash it thoroughly in a big colander. Way, way easier.
Weiss wouldn’t tell me how big his catering trade was, or who his customers were.
Maybe he’s feeding the Cubs, and he’s afraid he’ll be blamed.
Le Petite Louis
Little Louie’s always had a varied menu, but it used to be almost unremittingly greasy. The fries rendered the paper bags in which they were packed instantly translucent.
Now there’s something for almost everybody. There are at least nine kinds of wraps, seven salads, 13 tacos and burritos, 10 Mexican appetizers, breakfast sandwiches and still enough grilled fast-food items to fill the menu boards on at least two different restaurants.
In addition, there’s a supplementary menu of big, crazy sandwiches, mostly invented by Weiss’ buddies. Combinations of French fries, chicken steaks, burgers, bacon, fried egg and various other strange breadfellows.
I made hardly any of those things.
That’s likely why the joint still has a good relationship with the restaurant inspector, and has not burned down.
I did make several batches of French fries, and found out that at Little Louie’s, there’s no little buzzer like at McDonald’s to tell you when they’re ready.
In fact, if they look the color of finished McDonald’s fries, they’re nowhere near done.
The other guys seemed to have timers in their heads. I had to learn by asking whoever was nearby, “They look right? They look right?”
Once, early on, I fought the insane temptation to reach in and snatch a fry out of the boiling oil to see if that basket-full was properly fried.
That would have ruined my day.
After 10:30, I did a lot of pouring pop and delivering food to tables. There was less chance of significant error in those jobs.
But I fooled them.
In beverages, it’s bad enough that “Small” looks medium, “Medium” looks large, and “Large” looks like a carbonated above-ground swimming pool.
There is also “Kids.” “Kids” is smaller than “Small.”
“Small” has its own auto-fill buttons on the pop dispensers. “Kids” doesn’t. But Kids is small, right? Yes, small, but not “Small.”
So when you put a “Kids” cup under a spigot and punch the smallest button, it overflows quite nicely. Pop runs across the counter, soaking the carefully lined-up guest-checks beyond legibility.
This scenario is not theoretical.
Order #4, where are you?
“Number 4 isn’t here,” I told Weiss after scouting three dining areas for the customers.
About 15 minutes later, however, the #4 tray was gone. “Did they leave and come back?” I asked.
“No, it was two girls tucked in the little space that looks like a hallway,” he answered charitably. “Hard to see.”
I actually had seen them. But they had shredded the soda-straw wrappers and napkins while they waited, so it looked to me like they had already eaten.
I should have called out the number.
I am a bad, bad man.
I usually worked alongside Jose Santuario, who runs the front of the restaurant. He called a lot of people by their first names, and asked about families and absent friends.
I could only read about half of what he wrote on the tickets, between his unfamiliar handwriting and abbreviations (The first time I saw CS, I had no idea it was celery salt. The only thing I could think of was Caught Stealing.).
So I learned to listen to what he and the customers were saying to each other, and I was filling pop cups or assembling hot dogs before he’d clipped up the tickets.
By the time my shift was over at 2 p.m., I apparently looked like I knew what I was doing, though appearances are deceptive. I’d cut out a lot of the wasted motion, and the kitchen no longer felt cramped, but roomy and accommodating.
“Not bad,” Weiss told Santuario. “He’s surprisingly fast, and he has moves.”
Santuario inclined his head toward me.
“Sapo,” he said.
Overhearing, I asked what that meant.
Sapo is Spanish for toad.
Perhaps embarrassed to be caught naming me for an intermittently quick but permanently unattractive beastie, Santuario maintained that he, too, had once been called Sapo.
“Sapo Pequeno,” he said, pointing to himself. “Sapo Grande,” he said, pointing at me.
If you’re going to be a toad, at least be Big Toad.