Norm Zintz started his hot dog cart to help the village and to bring the age-old tradition of street food carts to the suburbs.
HAMBURG — Most people would never think to open a hot dog cart in the Southtowns. Norm Zintz is not most people.
“My doctor said to walk, for my heart,” Zintz said. “I hate to walk.” So instead, he started Big Norm’s Hot Dogs, and now, he gets his exercise pushing his cart up through the village, selling hot dogs, hamburgers, Italian sausages and the occasional pork chop sandwich.
“He said, as long as I don’t eat my own product more than once a week, it’s OK,” Zintz said. “So that’s what I do. Well, maybe two times a week.”
It all started when Zintz took his grandkids to downtown Buffalo for the day and they saw an ice cream cart on the street.
“They pointed at it and said, ‘Grandpa, you should do one of those!’ Well, I didn’t want to compete with Denise and Randy over at Main Street Ice Cream, who are good friends of mine, but nobody around was doing hot dogs. So I decided to give it a try.”
That was three years ago. Today, Zintz runs his cart up Main Street and down Buffalo Street, peddling his wares a couple of times per week, in nice weather.
“Wind is not my friend,” he said, tapping the health department-mandated umbrella. “The umbrella takes a beating in the wind, so if it’s very windy, I don’t go out. I don’t go out if it’s raining either; no one’s going to come get a hot dog in bad weather.”
He uses Water Valley Inn as his commisary and uses ingredients from Restaurant Depot, which he says are the highest quality he can get.
Norm’s hot dogs are grilled over hickory chips, for that charcoal flavor.
“It’s all name brands. I use Sahlen’s hot dogs, Mineo and Sapio’s sausage, angus beef burgers, Kraft cheese. If you put me up next to another hot dog stand, mine are better,” he explained.
The hot dogs are grilled over hickory chips, which he said are more successful than steaming them. “I experimented with steamed dogs, but those didn’t sell as well,” he explained. “And when my memory fails me and I burn a few, I keep those for the dogs. I’ll never get killed by wild dogs,” he added, with a wink.
The cart makes its rounds around lunchtime every day, with stops at his dedicated customers.
Norm’s dog has ketchup, mustard, relish and onions, but he can top them with everything from chili to bacon.
“A lot of these little stores, there’s just the owner behind the counter, so they may not get to take a walk to get a hot dog. I’ll poke my head in, take their owner. Some days, I’ll sell more hot dogs, other days I’ll out of sausages. I never know if it’s going to be a hamburger or a sausage day. That’s what’s fun about it.”
For Zintz, fun is what it’s all about.
“You’ll never make a living doing this,” he said. “It’s my hometown. I grew up here. Anything I can do to help the village, to get people to come out, I’ll do. People hear about me and come from as far as Amherst and Gowanda. They’ll bring their grandchildren, because they want them to get to order from a hot dog cart. It’s a lot of fun.”
He has a permit from the Erie County Health Department that gets renewed annually and a permit from the village that gets renewed every 60 days, as per Hamburg’s policy. He and his wife live in the house he grew up in, across the street from Mammoser’s Tavern and Restaurant.
“I was one of those Bethlehem Steel people who lost their jobs,” he said. “I moved away to find work and ended up traveling worldwide as an industrial service engineer. I’ve been to every continent in the world.”
Zintz said he is always interested in the cyclic nature of things, and how everything that goes around, comes back around eventually.
“When I was a kid, the day after I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, like everyone else did, I decided to wear my hair down, like the Beatles. It was probably an inch over my forehead,” he laughed. “In those days, we had to be inspected, our fingernails and so forth, before we got into school. My math teacher grabbed me by the collar, thrust my head under the sink and told me I’d better comb my hair. ‘I’ll have no Beatles in my class,’ she said. And then, once I got back, she made me stay after for being late!
“I think about how things were then. And then you think about the styles of the 60s and the 70s, and how things were then. Now, those same styles are coming back. The same ideas. It’s funny.”
Zintz is no stranger to going with that flow. After he lost his job at the steel plant, He started his own company, American Extrusion Services, in Dayton, Ohio, and moved back to Hamburg after he retired.
“I told my lady, we can go back home with the grandkids after retirement,” he said, with a wink. “And if I didn’t, I’d have to answer to her. I love it here. Hamburg is home.”
The hot dog cart keeps him busy, keeps him walking and keeps him meeting people, and most of all, keeps Hamburg in hot dogs.
“I’ll probably do it until I can’t do it anymore,” he said.
So what’s on Zintz’s dog? He likes his with ketchup, mustard, onions and relish; the same relish he has for the village he’s called home that, many years later, he came back to feed.
“Your Stories” is a new feature that profiles local residents of interest who may not be making news, but make the Southtowns the unique place it is. Know someone who fits the bill? Email a short description and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 649-4040 ext. 255.