Growing up in Colchester, Vermont, Jay Gracey’s idea of a treat was a stop at Charlie’s Hot Dogs. He doesn’t remember Charlie’s last name; this was 40 years ago, after all. But Gracey never forgot how Charlie made a hot dog on a flat-top grill, toasting the bun and grilling the split dog; adding it to the bun with a bit of kraut, a touch of onions and mustard. And then there was the meat sauce.
“It was the sauce that made it,” Gracey said; “Some blend of secret spices brought out the best in all of the ingredients.”
Charlie died 40 years ago, and his business closed. But Gracey promised himself that someday he’d bring back the recipe and the hot dog cart and sell those hot dogs again himself.
A chance meeting a few decades back between his sister and a woman who made hot dogs at Charlie’s for 20 years got Gracey the recipe for that meat sauce.
“I carried it in my pocket for years,” he said.
In April, he put that memory into reality when he opened McWeenies hot dog stand. He’s there most days from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or so in front of the Madison Plaza. And like with most things, he’s done it his way.
Dressed like Steve Martin’s character from the movie “The Jerk,” he is in white jeans, a white shirt, bow tie and a soda jerk’s hat. He explains that the outfit is part whimsy (he loved the movie) and because it’s nostalgic — kind of like the hot dog stand itself.
And it’s a marketing strategy that’s working.
McWeenie’s hot dogs, priced at $5 for a dog with all the fixings, chips and a soda and served up with Gracey’s sense of style, generosity and chattiness, are selling themselves through word-of-mouth.
“I gave away 400 of these when I opened (in April),” Gracey said.
Josh Vera, who recently moved to Corvallis to assume his post as youth pastor at Corvallis Foursquare Church on 20th Street, is a loyal customer. He recently brought his parents there for lunch when they were visiting him from the Central Valley of California.
They watched as Gracey expertly split a dog, put it down on the grill beside the bun, then loaded it up. After ladling on the meat sauce to the customers’ preference, Gracey handed over the plate, and he watched for the reaction he waits for with each order. It was good:
“What did I tell you?” Vera asked his father and mother as they tucked into a McWeenie and nodded in appreciation. “Great.” Then there was just a lot of chewing after that, and Gracey also nodded slightly, pleased.
Not all of his business ventures have brought him as much enjoyment.
“I had to go into business; I never could hold a job.”
Gracey’s colorful career started after he earned degrees in chemistry and biology from Florida Tech.
In his rapid-fire way of talking and skipping around in his chronology, Gracey touched on stints as a biologist for Empire Environmental, helping to clean up Superfund dump sites back East. It wasn’t for him.
“I got sick; it hurt my lungs,” he said.
Then he was (in no particular order) a photographer for Club Med in the Dominican Republic; the owner of a tree removal company and most recently the owner of a hardware store in Alaska.
At 55, he thinks he’s found the job he wants in a venture he started with his former wife, Deanna, and one that he can handle after he shattered some bones in a fall last September.
He is feeling better now, and he is enjoying himself, seeing a new generation enjoy Charlie’s hot dog recipe. He said it gives him pleasure, selling a good product from long ago and far away.
He is planning to add appearances at summer festivals to his business downtown and at the Farmer’s Market.
As his loyal customer Vera commented, “Corvallis is about to get dogged.”