by Evan Hatch
Many mistakes are made by those individuals not initiated to the Zack’s Hotdogs Experience. Those individuals refer to a menu before they order. They try to pay with a debit card. They try to explain what they want to their waiter instead of using accepted jargon. They misunderstand the double line, first seating policy. They order a cheese dog, expecting it to have meat. Largely, these neophytic behaviors go politely ignored by Zack’s staff. But it is noticed.
Ask anybody in Burlington, North Carolina where the best hotdogs are and you will get one answer. Zack’s. Are they? “Yes,” say the initiated. The initiated know the jargon, that only cash is accepted. They subtly dance in unspoken, determined patterns to claim the recently cleared tables.
Zack’s is an institution. Any restaurant that can start a sentence “Since 1928,” is an institution. Over these many decades, codes of behavior develop. Recipes are memorized, and set in stone. Preparation is streamlined. Patterns of communication are established and adhered to strictly. Delivery is perfected. And the members of these institutions embody their roles wholly. Employees and customers both.
A casual, business lunch at Zack’s lasts AT MOST, 15 minutes. Here goes. Table grab. Waiter appears. Order made. Order shouted to kitchen. Drink delivered. Fries delivered. Rest of meal delivered. Condiments added. Position assumed over plate. Eat. Grease dotted check dropped. The aforementioned steps require two minutes. And a leisurely 12 minutes later, you are at the counter paying the check. Remember, other people in line want to dance as well. Modified behaviors.
Mr. Toloupas Sr. perfected his chili long ago, the recipe is secret. Hot dogs are grilled on a flattop. In the older days, the grill cook aligned 10-12 buns up his arm and prepared the dogs to order. Two all the way-mustard, fine chopped onion, chili, slaw. Two cheese all the way-same as the above except a log of American cheese replaces the dog. Combo dog-sliced cheese wrapped around a hot dog. Two dogs slaw-no onion (some of the initiates care about their breath). On every table sits bottles of Zack’s mystery hot sauce.
Some use. Some don’t.
How are the French fries? Perfect. How are the burgers? I do not know. The BLTs? Don’t care. Grilled cheese? Probably pretty good. The breakfast? The hotdogs are sublime. My friend Brian Aaron pointed out that the first one is perfect. The second right up there, but with a tinge of sadness that the Experience is almost over. Brian and I and thousands of others happily drank the Kool-Aid long ago.
In high school, I judged the character of a person based on a simple gesture. Did he or she wipe the rim of Zack’s famous glass bottled Coke before he put it to his lips? My friends didn’t. I didn’t. Other people I did not hang with did. Yes, the wiping gesture produced a brown stain on the thin paper napkins (these were reused bottles after all). But that stain couldn’t harm you. It made you stronger.
Over the years Zack’s has changed subtly with the times. Women are waiters now. Bottled Cokes have largely been replaced by fountain drinks. I’ve seen a waiter (probably new) write down a large order to help him remember. And for the uninitiated, Mr. Toloupas has added an ATM on site.
Zack’s Hot Dogs
201 W Davis St.
Burlington, NC 27215
Evan Hatch is a folklorist currently working with the North Carolina Folklife Institute in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson & Scotland counties. Since 2002, he worked in Middle Tennessee documenting traditional musical and material culture. He was producer at Spring Fed Records and served as President of the Tennessee Folklore Society.