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Behind the Counter: Slinging Hot Dogs at O’Betty’s

Posted by cmh gourmand on September 13, 2011

My first job was at Knight’s Ice Cream in Clintonville. I started as a sophomore in high school and left the summer of my senior year. I made $2.85 per hour to begin, my top salary was $3.50. It took a long time to save for a car. The job taught me a lot. A lifelong love of ice cream began. I discovered I liked food…well I obsessively loved it, actually. I observed that a cup filled with ice and pop dumped in a trash is not cool. Since that discovery I never dump anything with liquid in a trash can because I know what it is like to clean up the mess. I found I was not good with down time on the job and would seek out something to do. I never lost the restlessness – but I am trying really hard now. In the winter when it was slow and I was working by myself, I started to experiment with everything we had in the shop – ice cream combinations, Sprite and sherbet shakes, chocolate covered anything, intriguing sandwich combinations and etc. I still engage in some reckless culinary experiments.

The job laid a foundation. I found I was a shy kid that enjoyed interacting with people and getting to know their preferences to make sure they got what they needed. One lady came in every Thursday for a scoop of coffee ice cream. I gave her one on the house after a year of repetition, she was shocked as if she had never been treated before, maybe she had not. Another customer came in every Saturday at 4:45 pm or even closer to the 5 pm switchover. He ordered five milkshakes of various types. It was always busy when he ambled in. The multi-shake request messed up the flow of our shift change. It briefly ticked me off. I discovered he was giving the shakes to his buddies at my favorite hobby shop. I then saw his act as generosity and that changed my mind and my attitude. The work I have enjoyed the most has included a lot of social interaction with new people, an opportunity to be creative in some way and autonomy. I miss that. I need that. The work I enjoyed did not feel like work….I know that is a rare thing for most people. I enjoy finding and making a connection to an idea or a person or at least giving the world something useful or entertaining.

I had micro-bursts of food service over the years. I volunteered for several food events: wine bartender at ComFest for years, my hot dog festivals and chili parties were famous in their day, washing plates at countless events, my Pizza Grand Prix series. Last summer I grilled 100 hot dogs for the masses at the Goodale Park Music Series. I enjoyed educating people about hot dog history and styles as they waited for their order to grill up. I have written about food since 1999 but only from the diners side. I felt an urge to get on the “right” side of the counter.

I’ve been a fan of O’Betty’s in Athens for years and a fan of hot dogs even longer. I came to know owner Bob Satmary over many hot dogs and chats about the Athens food scene. I think O’Betty’s is the best hot dog shop in the state…maybe the Midwest. I needed to balance out my perspective by getting behind the counter again. I asked Bob if I could work pro-bono to get my serving legs back. He said sure, come on down.

I arrived on a Saturday morning at 11:00 am, ready to work. I donned an apron then got the lay of the land behind the counter. The space in the place is small with no room to nudge past each other – single file from the grill to the cash register. My orientation covered how to make the best fries in the Ohio, the secret to serving a tofu dog that is worth eating and with a bit of trial and error how to create the various O’Betty’s hot dog varieties as well as how to redo a few mistakes I made along the way. Bob was a patient and effective teacher.

It was a slow Saturday but we had a few rushes to test the skills I have learned. It was clear I still had a lot to learn but Bob and his number one, soon to tour Europe Rockstar, employee John jumped in when needed and reminded me of the band of brothers teamwork that comes in a restaurant when things get tight. At the end I finally figured out the cuneiform style code O’Betty’s uses on order tickets. I was getting the swing of things and feeling confident “back in the saddle.”

During a couple slow periods I had a chance to speak with a few of the customers. Two guys on scooters from Ann Arbor were traveling around Ohio following places they found on Roadfood. I wrote two of them – O’Betty’s and Starliner Diner. I gave them a list of six places in Columbus for dinner. Another gentleman from Manhattan, currently working in Marietta, sang praises of the Athens and Columbus food scenes. I agreed and gave him a lot more food for thought and consumption in the capital city. I also made him a “Dixie” to go which he felt passed muster. O’Betty’s customers are almost all regulars and become part of the family in a short period of time. Photos of the favorite “family members” can be found on the wall opposite the register.

I did some cleaning and some prep. More hot dogs were grilled and buns steamed. I made one for myself and enjoyed the end result very much. I was told I did pretty well for the first day and had a job if I needed one! Knowledge confirmed: Hot dogs are best held in a hot water bath before grilling, fries are best soaked, blanched, then fried, customer service is the key to any business, when you connect with the customer everything else falls into place. My payment was a cookie and an afternoon of learning about hot dogs as well as rediscovering a lost part of myself. Writing is best and easiest when writing of a subject you love. It is another thing, but good to write about something you do or have done (unless it is something soul sucking). I was back behind the counter. I may be back at O’Betty’s for a shift or two this fall (but not Halloween – sorry Bob). I may be at another restaurant or bakery near you doing the same thing, providing the perspective from the other side.

O’Betty’s Red Hot! Dogs and Sausages
15 West State Street
Athens
740.589.6111

Knight’s Ice Cream
Clintonville – Gone
(torn down in the 1990’s, the site is now a vet’s office)

5 Responses to “Behind the Counter: Slinging Hot Dogs at O’Betty’s”

  1. Sounds like fun! I do love food service and feel that being behind the counter helps me respect those who cook for a living.

    Is the Knight’s on Cleveland Ave north of 270 different than the Clintonville one?

    CMH G. Response: Yes. Food service is hard work and it is important to remember that as a customer and cut a bit a slack when providing feedback.

    At one time there were three Knight’s Ice Cream locations and a mobile unit. I worked all of them. The Bethel Road location did not last long – it is now Gallos. The Clintonville location and Cleveland Ave locations were sold to different owners. The Cleveland Ave location is still open it has been through many owners over the years. Their trademark were KnightSticks – drumsticks with flavors such as Oreo and Mint Chocolate Chip – that was progressive in the day. I recall one summer night when we had a line of 100 plus people and working non stop for 6 hours straight. This was also during my permed hair days.

  2. Eric C. said

    I’m an O’Betty’s regular and have to say that the friendly service is only outdone by the great food. Bob, John and Ryan rock !!

  3. Emily said

    Thanks for featuring Bob, an old and good friend. He employed my husband and me in that same space in the late 1980s, when the restaurant was called DV8. Enjoyed visiting O’Betty’s in this way…

  4. Jane said

    LOL permed hair!? I’d love to see a photo of that🙂 Great story, Jim! I look forward to your next shift in Athens – I will definitely stop by for my Varla and garlic fries, but give me a shout out as soon as you know when you’ll be here🙂

  5. Regarding fries: soaked, blanched and fried. When Bourdain referred to blanched in the context of fries, he meant a first fry. Do they do their blanch in water? And, finally – are they golden crispy or dark?

    CMHG says: Fries are soaked in water for minimum multiple hour period, (the rest is a trade secret for Jimbo’s Haute Dogs (O’Betty’s North). The fries are golden, crisy and dark with a hearty shake of salt. O’Betty’s is the model for the quinessential Hotdoggery (it includes a Museum….) and the best in the state.

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