Traffic in Kalispell is a far cry from the daily gridlock that envelopes Manhattan, but since July, a modest institution of New York life has taken up residence along the curb of First Avenue West. And the product sold there is as real as the accents of the women who sell it.
Liz Moors and Shari Schindel, co-owners of New York Hot Dawgs, sell the real deal: 100 percent beef kosher-style Sabrett hot dogs shipped in straight from New York.
“You can’t find anything like this in Montana,” Schindel says. “These are the exact hot dogs you find on the street in Manhattan. They have a great taste, a personality of their own, made with top quality meat.”
Authenticity is what these women offer, both in the hot dogs and the New York humor served up along with lunch.
“We make a lot of people laugh; even the cranky ones,” Moors says with an unmistakably Brooklyn inflection.
From sweltering 100-degree days in the heart of summer to sub-zero temperatures in December, Moors and business partner Shari Schindel brave the elements and persist in the way New Yorkers do. About a month ago, their single-axle hot dog push kart –exactly what you would see on the sidewalk in Manhattan – was upgraded to an insulated, fully operational, stainless steel kitchen on wheels.
“The sodas were exploding in the winter,” Schindel said. “We had to sit in the car to keep warm – it was painful. But even with the new cart the job is still surprisingly labor intensive. We’re not just out here from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.”
The method to their madness starts hours before they hit the street: load the water tanks, make sure the pipes are not frozen, start the coffee, chop the onions, get the steamers going and stock the dogs, sausages, potato knishes and other products. “Then we have to get the trailer hooked up,” Moors said of the custom-cart built in New York. “That is the hardest part.”
The women buy buns and sausage locally, and point out that the Flathead is getting its hot dogs for a steal. A Sabrett dog costs $4.50 in New York City, while you can get your frankfurter fix for $2.50 in Kalispell. But they will tell you there is more to a New York dog than where it is made – almost as important is how it is made. Hot dogs – like accents – vary from coast to coast, and a New York dog, is made in a particular fashion: steamed bun, spicy yellow mustard or red onion sauce with sauerkraut. Almost no other condiments are permissible, and such a request is likely to be answered with a “fuhgeddaboutit” or the equivalent.
“One guy told me he wanted mayonnaise on his hot dog,” Moors said. “I told him to get lost! I am not putting mayonnaise on a hot dog. These are New York hot dogs, ergo the name.”
Moors believes that sticking to her guns is what has helped her fledgling business find a niche. She admits she has become more lenient – perhaps inadvertently picking up some Montana friendliness. They now carry mayonnaise packets for those who want to “graffiti” a hot dog, as well as celery salt, chopped and grilled onions – all additional condiments you won’t find in New York.
They park their silver trailer behind the Flathead County Justice Center, making it visible from blocks away. Their clientele includes lawyers, police officers, judges, high school students, and people on their way to and from jail. Even the health inspector is a satisfied customer.
Moors, describing herself as a “Jack-a-lene of all trades,” is almost brash, but manages a certain magnetism at the same time. She has worked as a catalog photographer, a construction company owner, and is the mother of two.
Schindel, on the other hand, is a suburban girl from Long Island – tight-lipped in comparison.
“I’m the nice one,” Schindel confessed. “And she is straight up Brooklyn.”
Before moving to Montana five years ago, Schindel was a practicing clinical psychologist in New York, specializing in the emotional component of chronic physical illness. She says she revels in the change of pace, not to say she is taking it easy: “This is tough work, but we love it.”
When Moors moved to the Flathead Valley 15 years ago, the landscape was virtually unscathed by box stores. Locals were still more concerned by the influx of Californians than commercial growth and wondering which developer would arrive next. Now, a decade and a half after her mother said Kalispell needed a bagel shop and a hot dog stand, Moors is following through on her advice.
“I woke up one morning and decided I was going to sell hot dogs,” Moors said. “We have something here that no one else does.”
It is a typical late winter afternoon in Kalispell, wind blowing, snow nearly gone, and in front of New York Dawgs, a line of hungry customers waits. One is a Kalispell police officer, but it’s apparent that he is not from around here. He is ordering food for another officer through the radio on his shoulder, speaking with a thick Boston accent.
A car honks, and for a brief moment, with him and the women and the cart and the smell of hot dogs and sauerkraut, New York does not seem 3,000 miles away.
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